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In Ithaca, Convergence of Technology And Talent Creates Hope for Genomics


ITHACA, NY — With a foot of snow on the ground, this is clearly not sunny San Diego. Neither is it Boston, or Oxford, UK.

But, it is a place where the future of microarrays and other genomic technologies seems bright, and exemplifies the way academic discoveries can fan out to create a life science culture in a surrounding area.

“It’s a little town in the middle of nowhere, but it’s amazing the talent and the technology that are here at Cornell,” said Tom Kurz, the chief operating officer of Advion BioSciences, a 1993 spinout of Cornell that now employs 140 people.

Advion, co-founded by Jack Henion, a professor of toxicology at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, produces an LC/MS device, the electrospray ionization (ESI) chip. Kurz said that it also has thoughts of creating a protein array to measure protein-protein interactions. “It’s early to do, but protein chips are the next generation of ELISA technology and could drive down assay costs,” Kurz told BioArray News.

Kurz spoke at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Business last Friday, the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA, as part a one-day biotechnology symposium organized by the student health and biotechnology Club. At the symposium, about 100 participants sequestered in a classroom to view PowerPoint lectures and rub shoulders with biopharma bigwigs.

Meanwhile, the snowy campus outside reverberated with construction noises, the sounds of Cornell building new life sciences and nanotechnology facilities. The university is now cranking up to assemble a massive war chest of $500 million to fund the Cornell New Life Sciences Initiative, which will build on the school’s four-year-old Cornell Genomics Initiative.

“Some people say life sciences research must be a big thing at Cornell,” said Robert Stundner, project director for the school’s science and technology project, “It’s not a big thing, it’s the No. 1 thing.”

For the students, some of whom will graduate in the coming months into a sullen marketplace, the genomics field may seem enticing. But the symposium did not offer them short-term encouragement.

Genomics will yield safe important medicines “in the next decade or two,” said Ed Scolnick, a Merck executive vice president for science technology. However, he added: “This revolution is expensive, you can’t do these things in your garage.”

Scolnick, who has been described as “legendary” in his role as the research and development manager for Merck Research Labs, discussed the plethora of targets now available through genomics and the need for funding to validate them, using microarrays and other technologies.

“Once the [human genome] was sequenced, there was a potential for 3,000 to 10,000 new drugs,” Scolnick said. “The PDR lists about 500 independent [disease] targets for a few hundred drugs.”

This gap can be closed by more investment by the National Institutes of Health in functional genomics, he said. That investment, he added, must include broad access to microarray and proteomics technologies.

As a result of the symposium, two small Ithaca companies may be getting a head start on this target validation work.

Colin Hill, hearing Kurz describe 10 quadrillion potential protein targets for drug discovery, made a quick pitch for a business collaboration between Advion and his company, Gene Network Sciences, a startup using a Beowulf cluster of Linux machines to create data-driven in silico models of cellular metabolism.

The two, whose offices are a mile or so apart, agreed to check schedules.

Hill, a Cornell doctoral candidate in physics who co-launched Gene Network Sciences in 2000, said his company is preparing to spend $300,000 to conduct microarray assays of colon cancer and normal cells in order to add the data into its computer model.

“MRNA is only one of the models we are going to do,” he said. “We are also going to measure protein levels as a function of time,” he added, to explain his interest in Advion. “We need better protein measurements, and we are waiting for better protein chips.”



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