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Genotyping With New Collab, Celera-backed Hubit Still Has Critics

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Named after the bases, or “human bits” of DNA information the company intends to catalog, HuBit Genomix splashed onto the scene this past March when Celera Genomics announced that it had invested and become a minority shareholder in the Japanese venture. Until a week earlier, the company, founded in April 2000 with ¥1.25 million, had been known as Medical Genome Systems.

According to Hiromichi Kimura, president and CEO of HuBit, the company planned on Celera’s backing early on and used it as a branding strategy. He adds that the funding announcement brought in a flood of job applications and investor queries.

SNP typing is the core of the venture’s business. HuBit aims to turn the information it gleans into a marketable database that would genetically profile the Japanese population. The company reports it is close to its 2001 throughput goal of 100,000 SNPs per day, a 10-fold increase from midyear. HuBit had talked of plans to more than double its staff by the end of the year, but by late fall had only 18 of an aimed-for 40.

HuBit just announced a collaborative research agreement with the Yamagata University School of Medicine to study DNA samples and develop a database to perform associative research. “The Yamagata population is a large study. It has excellent medical records associated with that study — ongoing for 20 years — a ready source of DNA from well-characterized individuals for HuBit,” says Robert Lussier, president of Celera Genomics Japan, which hopes to develop some of the targets HuBit finds.

HuBit seems sensitive to claims that it would sell or give Celera access to valuable data about the Japanese population. Under current agreements, Celera cannot see or use the Yamagata samples or data.

Critics maintain that HuBit’s success at attracting its big-name supporter is simply a flash in the pan. Yoshihiro Ohtaki, manager of Japan’s largest biotech investment fund, repeats what he’s heard from scientists and investors in the industry when he says, “No one has good things to say about HuBit. Many think Celera has no eye for judging, or that it was taken for a ride.” Part of the criticism stems from HuBit’s lack of original technology.

It’s a point that Lussier concedes, to some extent. “There is nothing fundamentally new that HuBit brings, except that they have access to samples,” he says. “They have a much better understanding of diseases important to look at in Japan and a strategy for tackling those.”

Lussier adds, “We weren’t in a position to look into the Japanese population on our own, so it was natural to have a partner to do that with.”

— Sara Harris

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