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Clinical Genomics: Starring Alethia, from the Ashes of SignalGene

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You can still reach Mario Filion through the official SignalGene phone directory, but that won’t last much longer. All of SignalGene’s assets are on the block — and Mario Filion isn’t one of them.

He was recruited to the company two years ago when SignalGene, having recently wrapped up several acquisitions, decided to split its work into two business units: clinical genomics and computational drug design. Then the biotech team leader at venture capital firm T2C2, Filion was tapped to be president of the clinical genomics division, which included all of SignalGene’s population genetics, functional genomics, and related research.

Despite the initiative, SignalGene’s future wasn’t looking bright. “The company didn’t lose money, but it didn’t make money,” Filion says. Determined to make a go of his division, he scouted around for other sources of funding and wound up applying for money from biotech funding agency Genome Canada. After two rounds of selection through provincial Genome Quebec, his application went to the national group and became one of three commercial projects accepted.

Filion based the application on a women’s project already underway at SignalGene. Now called the Integrative Genomics for Women’s Health Program — part of which occurs in collaborations with universities — and shored up with $6.2 million from Genome Canada, the project and Filion’s entire division were spun out of the failing SignalGene last October in a bid to save the genomics arm of the company.

The new entity, Alethia Biotherapeutics, relies heavily on proprietary technology called STAR, or subtraction transcription-based amplification of mRNA, developed by CSO Larry Malek. With it, the company will tackle osteoporosis — aiming to inhibit bone degradation — as well as breast and ovarian cancer. Using mouse models and cells from donors gathered through university partners in accordance with ethics guidelines, Alethia scientists study differential expression. In osteoporosis, for instance, the platform helps them “prioritize all the genes that are really related to osteopathic differentiation [showing] high specificity of expression in these cells,” Filion says.

The way STAR uses expression data gives a much higher sensitivity than looking at proteins or using other expression platforms, Filion says, so Alethia has greater access to rare and low-abundance RNAs.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but Filion doesn’t see Alethia going the same route as its parent. The company’s already knee-deep in validating potential targets, he reports, and is on course to develop therapeutics from them. Anything but small-molecule drugs would be done in-house, he says, and small-molecule therapeutics would go to a partnership with pharma.

Before that comes to pass, though, the company is focusing on getting “a strong IP position on the targets that we will identify,” Filion says. Sounds like someone who’s learned to be careful in business.

— Meredith Salisbury

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