Population Genetics Technologies, a Cambridge, UK-based startup developing sample-preparation technologies to help researchers use next-generation DNA sequencing in population studies, last week announced that it had raised £3.8 million (approximately $7.5 million) in a Series A round of funding.
The funding follows an initial round of seed financing provided by the Wellcome Trust, whose technology-transfer division gave the company £1.1 million in 2005.
According to newly hired CEO Mel Kronick, PGT plans to spend the cash to hire R&D staffers and to position the technology for market entry. “The most important thing is for us to add several people to the operation here to complement the existing staff that we have,” Kronick told BioArray News this week. “That is my highest priority.” Kronick said the company is advertising for six R&D positions. He did not disclose PGT’s total headcount.
The technology, which does not have a name yet, comprises a front-loading sample-tagging and -preparation system that would allow researchers currently using arrays in whole-genome association studies to employ next-generation sequencing technologies in order to more easily and cost-effectively sequence regions of interest.
“We call it ‘tagging and sorting processes,’” Kronick said of the technology. “One can think of it as a series of related sample-preparation processes that would be used up front of some existing analytical methods, probably current or next-generation DNA sequencing technologies.
“It is a way of effectively organizing and cataloging samples so that you can do sequencing operations more cost effectively than if you did them one at a time,” he added.
Rather than competing against arrays designed by vendors like Illumina or Affymetrix for whole-genome association studies, PGT envisions its technology to be the missing link between arrays and sequencers. Kronick pointed out that next-gen sequencing will be a necessary tool in future population studies, but that current costs and sample throughput make the idea of performing a population study on a next-gen sequencing instrument both time consuming and expensive.
“Sequencing is a really expensive technology,” he said. “If it is costing you $100,000 to do one human genome and you do 1,000 genomes, that’s a $100 million dollar project for one population, and that is just not going to fly.”
According to Kronick, PGT is instead looking to bridge the gap between array-based whole-genome association studies and the next-gen sequencing technology. “We are not competing against Affy or Agilent or even [Illumina’s Solexa technology],” he said. “We are trying to provide a complementary way of solving these problems.”
“If it is costing you $100,000 to do one human genome and you do 1,000 genomes, that’s a $100 million project for one population and that is just not going to fly.”
Kronick declined to define the technology more specifically, but said that PGT aims to “facilitate the large-scale multiplexing of samples in front of large-scale sequencing technologies [by] integrating a series of biochemical processing steps for DNA samples that one would like to analyze.”
The system could hypothetically be used with non-DNA-sequencing technologies, like arrays, Kronick said, but the firm first plans to integrate the platform with emerging next-gen sequencers. According to Kronick, though arrays are the current technology of choice for population studies, it is inevitable that scientists will eventually do their research on sequencers to get a closer look at genomic variation.
“Whole-genome association studies are extremely powerful methods, but for the most part they basically tell you the regions of the genome in the population that may present the particular phenotype you are looking for,” he said. “So you are forced into doing a sequencing analysis in the selected regions across the population, and we want to look at a more effective way of solving that problem.”
Kronick pointed to Illumina’s $600 million acquisition of Solexa last year as proof that vendors recognize the impact next-gen sequencing will eventually have on population-genetic studies.
“I think that Illumina, by buying Solexa, wanted to have a one-two punch: First use the whole-genome arrays to identify regions where variants exist, and then use Solexa technology to drill down to that,” he said. “We are saying that there are ways to organize sample processing to make it more cost effective.”
According to Kronick, PGT’s system is platform-independent and ideally could be integrated to work with all current and next-generation sequencing technologies.
PGT’s story began in mid-2005. Its three co-founders are Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner, Applied Biosystems and Lynx Technologies co-founder Sam Eletr, and Molecular Tool co-founder Philip Goelet. Eletr previously served as interim CEO of PGT until Kronick was recently hired as CEO and made a member of the PGT board of directors.
Eletr now serves as chairman of the board, which also includes Bernard Daugeras, a managing partner of Auriga Partners; Stephane Mery, director of healthcare investments at Noble Fund Managers; and Mark Treherne, a former research executive at Pfizer.
Brenner, co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002, is the inventor of the IP behind the company, and will serve as a “significant scientific advisor” to PGT, according to Kronick, who added that one of the reasons PGT is located in Cambridge is to “be in proximity to him.”
Kronick said that as PGT evolves it will begin to contemplate which route to market suits its technology best. The company could, for example, proceed as an independent sample preparation company, it could license its technology to partners, or it could seek to integrate its system with one sold by a vendor.
“It is too early to lock down what our business strategy will be. This approach is somewhat generic and could be an asset to companies that compete against each other,” he said. “The financing we have now will allow us to demonstrate the power of the technology. When we have done that we can have further discussions about how to bring this to market.”