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Biotech Buys into Bioinformatics

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Who says they’re late to the genomics game? Rainer Fuchs argues that Biogen’s timing is perfect.

 

by John T. Carr

 

Rainer Fuchs maneuvers through a maze of construction workers loading materials off a truck into the new computing building on Biogen’s Cambridge, Mass., campus. He pushes open a heavy door that leads to its throbbing heart — a well-lit room humming with row upon row of pristine Sun and SGI computing power. A strip of cardboard has been wedged in to keep the door’s automatic lock from sliding shut; it’s so new that no one yet has a key.

“We’re frantically ramping up,” says Fuchs. “I’m spending a lot of money right now getting hardware and software systems installed.” Fuchs can’t say exactly how much he’s spending, but he was brought in six months ago to quadruple Biogen’s two-bit bioinformatics division.

The expansion, paid for by the success of Biogen products such as Avonex (Interferon beta-1a), alpha interferon, and hepatitis B vaccine, is indicative of a trend that is reshaping biotechnology companies.

In recent years, as major pharmaceutical companies invested in genomic data and the requisite tools and storage capacity, biotechs held back. “Biotechs have had less money to spend on bleeding edge technologies,” Fuchs explains.

But now that data for the whole human genome is available, a sea change is taking place. Fuchs says the risk of getting into genomic data analysis has been reduced: the tools of genome research have been proven; high-priced resources such as microarrays have become commoditized; and people with experience, while not plentiful, exist.

Sure, the traditional biotech industry has been slow to arrive to genomics. But Fuchs says the timing is right. In fact, he believes that their biological expertise puts biotechs at an advantage over young genomic-driven drug development companies such as Millennium Pharmaceuticals and Human Genome Sciences. Those companies have the technological lead, but not the decades of experience of Biogen, the world’s oldest biotech, he notes. “It’s easier to buy the technology than the expertise on the preclinical side. Now we can avoid the mistakes and not go through the same learning experience that other companies have,” Fuchs says.

Biogen isn’t the only biotech that sees things this way: San Francisco-based Genentech also formalized a bioinformatics department and ramped up its genomic computing capacity this year.

Career on the Forefront

Fuchs comes well prepared for the job of souping up Biogen’s bioinformatics power. Born in Germany, he earned his PhD in biochemistry before deciding, he says, “to switch over to the dark side of the force” as a professional in bioinformatics.

“I had to deal with a lot of data while doing my PhD work,” he explains with a soft accent. “I got more and more interested in the complexity of dealing with information — how to analyze it and how to organize it.”

When he began 15 years ago, Fuchs was attracted by the fact that it was a relatively untouched area, perhaps only practiced by ten or so other people in the world. He worked as a staff scientist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, but when the group relocated to Hinxton, UK, he decided it was time to “move on even further.” He joined GlaxoWellcome’s Research Triangle Park facility in 1994 to launch a bioinformatics program. Fuchs was the first hire in all of genomics for Glaxo, but by the time he departed the bioinformatics department alone had grown to 28 strong.

It was during his tenure at Glaxo that Fuchs enjoyed the growing recognition that bioinformatics was a lynchpin to all genomics work. A key issue for Glaxo at the time was that the pharma company had suddenly begun to generate large volumes of internal information and had no systems in place to capture and organize it in databases. Just as important was learning to integrate the internal information with surging amounts of external data. The time for bioinformatics had arrived, and Fuchs was there from the start to usher it all in.

Leaving Glaxo in 1998, Fuchs joined Ariad Pharmaceuticals, a tiny startup in Cambridge, Mass. Ariad was involved in a joint venture with Hoechst Marion Roussel to identify drug targets, but the bigger turn-on for Fuchs was the small setting. “I thought it was a great opportunity to combine the entrepreneurial environment and spirit of a small company with the resources of a big multinational pharmaceutical company,” he says.

In January, 2000, Hoechst merged with Rhone-Poulenc Rorer. Fuchs was appointed global head of lead generation informatics, but found the new work dynamic dramatically changed. As a husband and father of two, his travel schedule became overbearing. He wanted to remain in Cambridge for the sake of his family, and that’s when Biogen stepped up with an intriguing offer.

“Biogen is a company that fits in between the two extremes that I’ve been exposed to,” he says. As an established firm with a revenue-generating product on the market, Biogen has the resources for serious multidisciplinary research. On the other hand, the company is still on the cusp of growth, and all its facilities are located right in Cambridge, ensuring that lines of communication are clear and efficient.

Biotech’s Evolving Mission

Biogen is currently pursuing two different strategies for genomics-based drug discovery. The first focuses on exploiting the company’s proven biological expertise in certain protein groups. This manifests itself as a datamining effort in which the bioinformatics team will dig right into the human genome in order to unearth specific genes of interest.

The second approach is more biology-driven. Researchers will begin with a biological system that is representative of a disease of interest. Gene expression technology will be brought to bear in an attempt to isolate genes that exhibit behavior suspiciously correlative to the disease state. Once it can be determined which genes play a role in a disease, researchers are off to a running start, figuring out how to amend the genes to treat the disease.

A tour of Biogen’s campus reveals that most rooms, even in the computing facility, are equipped with oversized white pads propped up on easels. A conference room is also equipped with a wall-sized dry-erase board for thoughts that floweth over.

The surfaces’ overwhelming whiteness is striking. True, it’s the job of corporate communications squads to wash away proprietary secrets before reporters and photographers show up, but nonetheless, room after room of blank white pads reinforce the newness of Biogen’s mission, like starched sails draped from a mast, waiting to be filled with a first gust of air.

Fuchs is well aware of the work that lies ahead. While big pharma might be experiencing a sense of giddiness over the wealth of new drug discovery opportunities, a relatively small biotech like Biogen has to be careful. With comparatively limited resources, only 1,400 employees worldwide, and a bite-sized sales force, the company must focus on disease areas that match its research as well as its commercial profiles. Now, as ever, the last thing Biogen wants is to square off against the Pfizers of the world.

To be sure, genomic data haven’t spurred Biogen to change its fundamental approach to drugs. Says Fuchs, “The general thinking is that the human genome will produce a lot of new small molecule drugs. We do have in-house small molecule projects, but the more direct results will come from proteins and antibodies. What the human genome really gives us is a new list of protein therapeutics.”

Fuchs says the current climate reminds him of the days of molecular modeling in the 1980s. People thought molecular modeling would change the landscape of the industry, Fuchs says. “Instead, companies that were strong players learned how to use those technologies and they fit naturally into the existing environment.”

In the same manner, he argues, Biogen will be able to adopt genomic technologies because they fit into the infrastructure the company has already built. And companies like Millennium, he suggests, will have to work even harder to become fully integrated drug discovery companies.

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