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FEATURE: Beyond Genomics Takes a Gamble on Systems Biology

NEW YORK, March 16 - When Lee Hood started the Institute for Systems Biology, a project to build an integrated research supercenter for the biological sciences, few doubted the validity of the concept, but many wondered whether the technology existed to make it work.

Now, in a sign that others are also willing to gamble on the idea, systems biology is attracting commercial attention. Beyond Genomics (BG), a startup based in Cambridge, Mass., is attempting to glean medically-relevant information from multiple systems simultaneously, from genes to metabolites, by using software that identifies patterns in these systems caused by disease.

"We're the first company to do measurement-based and algorithm-based analyses to find relevant correlations" across these systems, said Aram Adourian, the director of advanced technologies at BG.

Just over a year old, BG is the brainchild of Noubar Afeyan, an entrepreneur and scientist who helped found Celera Genomics, and Fred Regnier, a biochemist at Purdue University and co-founder of PerSeptive Biosystems, now a part of Applied Biosystems. The two started the company after discussions with the scientific advisory board of NewcoGen, a company founded by Afeyan that specializes in starting companies that straddle the border between life science and information technology.

Afeyan said the advisory board, which includes Eric Lander, wondered what would enable scientists to acquire deeper knowledge about the biology of disease. The conclusion they came to, he said, was that "we needed much higher throughput than existing technologies," combined with genomics, proteomics, and metabolite data.

To try to tackle this problem, NewcoGen supplied $5 million in financing, and Afeyan and Regnier recruited scientists from Purdue, Indiana University, and the University of Leiden, in Amsterdam, each with expertise relevant to BG's mission.

Directing the company's proteomics technology are Regnier, who studies protein separation, and Scott McLuckey, also at Purdue, who has experience developing mass spectrometry techniques for studying protein complexes, said Adourian. David Clemmer, a biochemist at Indiana,  contributes experience in developing instrumentation for high-throughput protein analysis, and Jan van der Greef, a researcher at the University of Leiden, has experience analyzing metabolites, the downstream products of biochemical pathways.

Overlaying the biological science is a set of algorithms and bioinformatics software developed at the University of Leiden and at TNO Pharma, a Dutch pharmaceutical company where Greef is a managing director. The bioinformatics system, or "biosystematics," as Adourian calls it, is designed to integrate data from disparate experiments, compare disease versus non-disease states, and search for correlations that might identify important biomarkers.

According to Steve Ober, BG's CEO, the company's business plan is to partner with pharmaceutical companies in research alliances, much like "a young Millennium Pharmaceuticals." Currently, the company counts TNO Pharma as its only partner, but Adourian said BG is negotiations with a "major Boston medical institute" for a potential collaboration.

In the meantime, the company is setting up its research facilities in Waltham, Mass., and running pilot projects to demonstrate their technology to potential collaborators.

Whether BG will succeed in its ambitions depends on BG's ability to identify "higher quality targets, faster," said Ober, but he is, much like Lee Hood, confident in BG's systems biology approach.

"We want to do biology in parallel, rather than in serial," he said.
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