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Q&A: New Orchid Life Sciences Head Discusses SNP Strategy

NEW YORK, Jan 19 - Ten days ago, Jack Ball, Amersham Pharmacia Biotech's North America president, left his job to take charge of Orchid Biosciences’ life sciences division. GenomeWeb spoke to Ball, 53, Friday about his decision to lead the division as well as Orchid’s position in the competitive SNP analysis market.

GW : In your new position as life sciences senior vice president what will you be doing?

Ball: This position was created so Dale [Pfost, Orchid’s CEO] could spend more time on M&A activities instead of running the day-to-day business in the life sciences division. There are three business units. One is GeneScreens, which is involved in paternity and forensic testing. The second is the pharmaceutical value creation division, which is creating pharmaceutical value out of SNPs. [Then] Orchid’s life sciences group markets products and services for genotypic analysis.

GW: AP Biotech is a well established company. Why did you leave AP Biotech for a company like Orchid, which is smaller and less mature?

Ball: It’s more fun here. It’s more fun to build something than it is to run a large established business. [When change is needed] We can turn on a dime. [AP Biotech] is a behemoth. I guarantee it [would] take AP Biotech three years to [change direction].

GW: The SNP analysis market is getting pretty competitive right now, with Sequenom’s MassArray, AP Biotech introducing the Sniper, Qiagen and other companies doing SNP analysis. What does Orchid offer in particular to this intensely competitive market?

Ball: The most exciting thing Orchid offers is the intellectual property of primer extension. We have signed deals with AP Biotech, ABI, [and] NEN Perkin Elmer to use primer extension as the key technology on their existing sequencing platforms. We really own the space from an IP perspective. There are other companies with other instruments that come in with genome-wide scanning. But as the market develops, where you are looking at individuals as opposed to population density, primer extension will be the primary technology.

GW: What is primer extension and how does it work?

Ball: We designed a primer that abuts the SNP location. We then use a DNA polymerase to add the next base in the sequence. We then have a reporter molecule on that base that tells us which base has been added, and that defines the SNP.

GW: What about Sequenom? Sequenom is chomping on your heels in doing deals on their Massarray systems.

Ball: At the state of the market right now, Sequenom is probably our biggest competitor. Sequenom will help the market find the frequency and the interesting SNPs out there. Once that’s done, that’s when we really start to make the money. Because that’s when we start to get utility out of individual SNPs. That’s when people are going to be paying to do SNP analysis on large numbers of people.

I think we will begin to dominate the space as we begin looking at individual SNP panels or groups of individuals beginning to define subsets of populations, adverse drug reactions, propensities for certain medical conditions. We also believe our platform is more expandable than theirs into the million SNPs range. They are going to be limited when it comes to more directed studies, where you are looking at a large number of individuals for particular SNPs. Say you want to go look in at a particular SNP in a million individuals. They are going to have a great deal of difficulty scaling to that sort of project.

GW: Do you see Orchid branching out of SNP analysis into wider life sciences applications?

Ball: Anything is possible. But I would prefer not to comment on this.

GW: What is your vision for Orchid’s life sciences operations?

Ball: My vision is to build a diverse group of platforms that will serve the wide needs of the market. There are going to be some people that want to do a few SNPs on a lot of people, and some people that want to do a few SNPs on a few people, and a few [groups] are going to do a lot of SNPs on a lot of people.

Right now there is one primary platform, the 25k, which has a capacity of 25,000 genotypes per day. The next platform, the 5K, will be on a lower scale, then another platform will be the 1K, which will do 1000 genotypes per day. Also, we’re developing SNPcode, an assay using primer extension that runs off of an instrument base of Affymetrix machines using the affymetrix chips. Last week we announced a collaboration with Exelixis on SNPcode.

GW: What is Orchid’s greatest weakness in the current market?

Ball: Our greatest weakness is the speed with which we are growing and our ability to attract talent. We are trying to get talented people into the Princeton area. And even with the general slowdown seen across the US, the New York-New Jersey area still has the tightest job market anyplace in the United States.

GW: How do you see the SNP analysis market growing in the next five years?

Ball: It’s difficult to say. There will be a lot of people doing a lot of SNP scoring over the next five years. The big question we all have is ‘will there be utility in the SNPs that are found?’ That’s a crystal ball question. I believe it because I believe that’s the basis of genetic diversity, but I can’t tell you that that’s the case.