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Bioinformatics: Silver Bullet?

This article by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 18, 1998. All rights reserved. Bioinformatics is the hot field, says Martin Cleary, former head of Theragen and an alumnus of Cytogen. Says Cleary: "A tremendous amount of money is being spent by big drug companies on the bioinformatics companies. What they want from this is a better way to design drugs. That's what bioinformatics is all about -- tools to design and develop effective pharmaceutical products."

Just what is bioinformatics? Loosely defined, it is technology that combines computers and medicine or biotech. That might include combinatorial chemistry, drug screening, or genomics. Strictly defined, bioinformatics involves gene therapy.

"Bioinformatics is the ability to get information out of the data bases, taking the data that could be generated from chemistry or genomics, and interpreting it," says Bob Johnston of Johnston Associates, the founder of SEQ Ltd.

"Any time you use computers or mathematical imaging approach to a biological problem, to me that is bioinformatics," says Dan Tripodi, a partner with Gordon Ramseier in the Bridgewater-based Sage Group; he is also involved with Microgenomics, a virtual company working with genomic diversity. "If I take a photograph or X-ray, it's not bioinformatics. If I take a CAT scan or MRI, that is bioinformatics. If I do a bunch of chemical analyses and just report the results, that's not. If I include an analysis based on computerized demographics, boom, bioinformatics."

Cleary likes the stricter definition, in part because he has been associated with prosperous genome firms. "If you are in the gene business, you are looking at bioinformatics differently from combining computers and biology to generate innovative useful diagnoses," says Cleary. He presided over the first public offering at Cytogen, then merged a gene therapy company, Theragen, with GenVec Inc., which then joined CardioGene Therapeutics -- bought by Boston Scientific -- in targeting the heart disease market. This area made headlines this month for its announcements about how DNA manipulation can help heart patients.

Cleary points out that one of the eminent genomics firms, Human Genome Sciences, had early support from a company now based at 44 Nassau Street, Healthcare Ventures. With 285 employees in Rockville, Maryland-based Human Genome Sciences earned well over $200 million in cash or freely tradable stock. Rights to its DNA databases were bought by SmithKline Beecham, which then turned around and invested in Orchid Biocomputer's miniaturized high throughput DNA screening technology.

Another Princeton-based genomics firm, SEQ Ltd., has been forced to take a different path from what it originally planned (U.S. 1, May 14, 1997). SEQ was going to generate a database of genomic information, says Johnston, but it decided not to buy the usual $150,000 instrumentation (made by Applied Biosystems and sold to Human Genome Sciences and others) but to make something new to generate data inexpensively.

"This turned out to be more difficult than we thought," says Johnston. The good news is that SEQ has gotten federal funding for the less expensive way to do single molecule detection. "Our near term target is to do it five or six times as fast." Also, in looking for problems that could be more easily solved than single molecule detection, SEQ has turned to target validation, building an instrument drug companies would buy to look at intracellular pathways.

The 15-person firm moved out of rented incubation space at the Sarnoff Corp. and into its own lab space on Princess Road. Jay Trautman and Tim Harris, both formerly of Bell Labs, are the principal investigators.

"It's been a longer, tougher struggle than I originally envisioned," says Johnston. "I think we will be successful in the near term for target validation and ultimately in the single molecule detection. The reason they (the federal government) put up the money is that they realized no one else has the goal of doing it as inexpensively as we want to do it. But we were wrong in terms of how steep the mountain was."

Still, Johnston is bullish on New Jersey as a place for bioinformatic firms like SEQ: "We find it easier to interface with pharmaceutical companies when they are less than an hour away. They can come right into our labs. It would be more difficult if for every experiment we wanted to run, they were three hours or 3,000 miles away."

-- Barbara Fox

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