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FEATURE: GeneProt Hopes to Become the Celera of Proteomics, but Can it Fly Solo?

PARIS, Sept 12 - In July, Geneva Proteomics of Switzerland made a bold announcement, saying it planned to become the international leader in industrialized proteomics.

Armed with some of the leading brains in proteomics and $40 million in venture capital, the possibility that GeneProt would be able to conquer the market might have seemed feasible.

But on closer inspection many questions arise about how the company will achieve such an audacious goal.

Celera: Friend or Foe?

The biggest question centers around GeneProt’s reported partnership and apparent breakup with Celera Genomics (NYSE: CRA). Early in 2000 the media reported that two of GeneProt’s founders , Denis Hochstrasser and Aimos Bairoch, were in advanced talks with Celera to launch a joint proteomic venture.

A union between GeneProt and Celera would have created a proteomics match made in heaven. Hochstrasser and his team of Swiss protein jocks, namely Bairoch and Ron Appel, would offer critical innovative know-how and technological prowess. Hochstrasser, Bairoch, and Appel are affiliated with the University of Geneva and the Swiss Institute for Bioinformatics, perhaps the world’s leading center for protein research.

Celera would bring its industrial experience and intellectual property in addition to its reputation as the company that sequenced the human genome. Together they would have expertise, global reach, and big money -- Celera has raised $1 billion, much of which it plans to invest in proteomics research.

Other evidence also points to expectations for a collaborative effort. Hochstrasser and the University of Geneva signed a deal giving Applied Biosystems (NYSE: PEB), Celera’s sister company, an exclusive license in November 1999 to develop Hochstrasser’s patented molecular scanner, a novel technology for ramping up proteomics research. It seems unlikely that Hochstrasser would have turned over his brainchild to Applied Biosystems if he intended to compete head on with Celera. Sure, the University of Geneva and GeneProt could find another instrument maker to develop the scanner for in-house use, but there would be restrictions on commercializing the product.

But since rumors of the talks surfaced and the licensing deal was signed, Celera and GeneProt have made little headway in cementing a deal. Celera declined to discuss whether or not it is or has been in talks with GeneProt and GeneProt was also mum on the topic.

What’s GeneProt Got that Others Don’t?

Without Celera, GeneProt is likely to have a much harder time becoming the international leader in proteomics. Sure the Swiss firm has brains, but will it have the brawn to beat the competition?

Companies such as Oxford Glycosciences and Large Scale Biology as well as big pharmas already have first mover advantage, and Celera’s $1 billion dwarfs GeneProt’s $40 million.

Carl Gordon, General Partner at Orbimed Advisors, one of GeneProt’s financiers, offered a lukewarm assessment of the situation: “GeneProt hasn’t shown it will work [on an industrial scale] yet. However, we believe that their approach and team make them very promising.”

Tackling the Proteomics Problem

Over the next few months GeneProt said it would start taking some major steps toward achieving its targets.  

It said 50 mass spectrometry machines would be delivered by an unnamed vendor beginning this fall. Most of the machines are scheduled to be up and running by first-quarter 2001.

Keith Rose, GeneProt’s chief scientific officer, said that in 2001, the company would have the power to analyze 1.6 million proteins a year using mass spectrometry.

“We plan to complete at least one but probably two proteomes by the end of 2001,” said Rose. A proteome refers to the proteins expressed in a particular tissue at a particular time. By 2002, GeneProt said it will have the capacity to analyze 8 proteomes per year.

But Oxford Glycosciences is already blazing away at the rate of   “a few hundred thousand” proteins per year by mass spec according to the company’s commercial director, Robert Burns. And from a technological standpoint it is hard to see that GeneProt will have any advantage over the competition.

In addition to having the exclusive license for developing Hochstrasser’s molecular scanner, Applied Biosystems plans to deliver a mass spec machine this month to Celera that is said to be 10 times more powerful than any other machine on the market. And, Applied Biosystems also has plans to develop the Isotope Coded Affinity Tagging method pioneered by Ruedi Aebersold. This method is designed to facilitate protein separation, a crucial first step in protein analysis.

By offering the mass spec machines, the molecular scanner, and the ICAT system, Applied Biosystems will be able to secure its position as the top supplier of cutting edge proteomics tools. These tools will likely revolutionize the way proteomics is performed and they may also help sister company Celera to gain a dominant position in the proteomics sector in much the same way that Applied Biosystems’ sequencer helped Celera to beat everybody to the human genome punch.

GeneProt’s Fuzzy Business Plan

The next few months should be interesting as GeneProt moves into the proteomics space. In addition to revealing who will be supplying its technology, the company will also have to start answering questions about its fuzzy business plan.

The company said it hopes to garner sales by offering subscriptions to its protein databases although it may abandon this plan if one or more pharmaceutical companies requests a partnership deal.

Of course, questions about its business plan might also get answered should GeneProt and Celera issue a joint statement regarding a deal.

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