Corrections or additions?
This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the
April 18, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Life in the Fast Lane: Valigen
A 1979 Time magazine cover heralded the nascent
of biotech, says Richard Metz, executive director of product
development at ValiGen, and it inspired his career. This cover
Interferon — a newly available drug — as a silver bullet that
could produce the cure for cancer. "That was the time," Metz
says, "when the biotech industry became valuable, when you could
purify protein in a flask and produce millions of pounds of something
that was successful."
Metz speaks on an "Introduction to Biotechnology" panel at
the biotech conference in Atlantic City (see story starting page 6).
summarize molecular biology in laymen’s terms, tell about the
uses of genomics, and explain why genomics will factor into new drug
Next August ValiGen (U.S.) Inc. (formerly called Kimeragen) is
to move its laboratory 17 miles from 45,000 square feet in Newtown,
PA, to 72,000 feet in the former AT&T building on Carter Road. It
is well funded; before the stock market declined last year ValiGen
made a private placement of $26 million.
Headed by Douglas Watson, who is also speaking at the
ValiGen has 50 employees in Newtown (13 people at other locations)
and expects to add about 20 people on Carter Road.
One basic question that Metz will discuss: With the genomic
being discovered, how do we extract valuable information from 3
sequences? "Part of that comes from understanding the genetic
variations between people, how these differences contribute to
and how our technology can aid in understanding how these differences
lead to function differences," says Metz.
His company does "gene repair," using a synthetic piece of
DNA to make site specific changes in living cells. With this,
can determine how a sequence change leads to phenotype (biochemical)
change in the cell. "Even though you don’t know what the gene
does, you can modify it or inactivate it and then look to see whether
there is a change in the function of the cell."
The old, long way to understand the function of a particular piece
of DNA is to dissect it biochemically, which could take several years.
ValiGen’s way is to alter its function or activity and look for old
or new properties of the cell.
Here’s how it works: As cells divide, their enzymes make mistakes.
But each cell has a set of machinery to repair the mistakes. His
technology, called Genoplasty, adds pieces of artificial DNA called
oligonucleotides, which are almost identical to the cell’s original
DNA sequence. The cell’s machinery uses the information from the
strand of DNA as a template to repair the resident strand; it changes
the cell to match the intruder.
The end product for this is not some scary form of gene therapy, which
would introduce a gene into a living animal in order to fight disease.
Instead, the results are used as a tool in a drug screening process.
"If we can grow a cell and modify the gene so it is a model for
cancer, we can use those cells to screen for and develop anti-cancer
drugs," Metz says. "You can make a precise change in the cell
and see the results of the change you made."
All this research was made possible only after the 1980s, says Metz,
when the first gene was put together by combining a lot of
to make artificial insulin. It was a "proof of principle"
experiment. Before that time, DNA wasn’t readily available to the
This change was what sparked Metz’ interest in biotechnology. He grew
up in Pittsburgh, where his father was an artist who worked
in advertising and his mother was a teacher, and he majored in
at Purdue, Class of 1988. Intrigued by the cloning of Interferon,
he went to the Weizmann Institute in Israel and to New York University
Medical Center for a PhD, followed by post-doctorate work with Nobel
prize winner Eric Kandell at Columbia and at Bristol-Myers Squibb. He
of molecular biology at Quality Biotech (now Viromed) in Collingswood,
and then came to Kimeragen (now ValiGen) nearly four years ago.
Thanks to the Human Genome Project, scientists can now name the genes,
but have not yet discovered all their functions, and Metz aims to
help ValiGen do that. "We need to know their functions in order
to claim rights, to focus our research, and to validate the target
— to link the function of the gene to a particular disease
Pheasant Run, Newtown 18940. Douglas G. Watson, president and CEO.
215-504-4444; fax, 215-504-4545. Home page: www.valigen.com.
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