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Midwest Startup GenTel Harvests DNA Computing Byproducts to Develop Biochips

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For the past few years, scientists have been trying to develop DNA computers, which harness the coding capabilities of DNA molecules to solve computational problems. But while it may be more than a decade before your desktop PC is replaced by a DNA processor, GenTel of Madison, Wisconsin, has found applications for a byproduct of DNA computing research: using the surface chemistries developed in this research to make “second-generation” DNA and protein biochips.

This still-embryonic venture was founded by seven people in September 2000 after Jan Remmereit, a Norwegian entrepreneur, approached Ken Johnson, now GenTel’s president, with the idea of starting a company based on molecular computing. Johnson brought on board three scientists who had developed simple surface-based DNA computers: Robert Corn and Lloyd Smith, both chemists at the University of Wisconsin, and Anne Condon, a computer scientist at the University of British Columbia.

With $1 million in angel financing from Remmereit and financial backing from an undisclosed Nasdaq-traded biotechnology company, GenTel started funding research in the labs of Corn, Smith, Condon, and Erik Winfree at Caltech, in the hope that “as the science developed, we would try to find applications,” Johnson said.

So far GenTel has obtained the rights to two patents and seven patent applications from the Smith and Corn labs, covering aspects of surface chemistry, arraying technology, and detection of molecular interactions by surface plasmon resonance.

Bryce Nelson, GenTel’s chief scientific officer and a former graduate student in Corn’s lab, compares GenTel’s approach to General Motors’ funding of a racing team: “They will test out their technology in [the race cars], and what they find is, it helps them make better Chevrolets,” he said. “DNA computing is sort of the Grand Prix of biochips, and we are taking that technology and feeding it back into our biochips.”

Last April, the company moved into 1,500 square feet of lab space and now has four full-time and two part-time employees who are trying to turn patents into products.

The company’s technology gems are the chip surfaces it has developed on gold, silicon, and diamond. These surfaces reportedly resist non-specific binding, provide a superior signal-to-noise ratio, and are flatter and more homogeneous than competing chips, according to the company.

By the end of this year, GenTel is planning to come out with a substrate chip that will allow researchers to spot their own protein or DNA arrays. GenTel is also teaming up with an undisclosed “content-provider” to develop a re-usable chip for characterizing protein-DNA interactions by the end of next year.

More long-term, the company is working on protein chips, but not on gene expression arrays, since “we don’t want to go in competition with Affymetrix,” said Johnson.

In the more distant future, GenTel seeks to develop “generation two biochips” — microarrays that, like present DNA computers, allow multiple sequential operations. The DNA computer paper Corn and his colleagues published in 2000, for example, involves several multi-step cycles: DNA-hybridization, nuclease digestion, DNA denaturation, and a final readout step.

“Generation-one [biochips] just detect molecules attaching to the surface,” said Corn. “Generation two would be where you actually manipulate the molecules.”

Nelson is hopeful this approach will one day put his emerging company in a unique position: “We see GenTel taking a leadership position in the next generation of chips,” he said with characteristic startup optimism.

— JK

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