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$100,000 DARPA Grant Brings Genomatica Closer to in Silico Human Metabolism

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Genomatica can now add DARPA to the list of federal agencies that have funded development of its SimPheny modeling platform. Last week, the San Diego-based company said that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had awarded it a $100,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant, adding to over $2 million in SBIRs the company has already received from the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.

The latest award, however, will take the company’s modeling technology in a slightly new direction. While Genomatica’s previous projects focused on microbial models of interest for environmental or industrial applications, the new SBIR grant, for “Development of Predictive Algorithms for In Silico Drug Toxicity and Efficacy Assessment,” will place it fully within the realm of human metabolism and drug development.

The new direction is the logical next step for the two-year-old company, said Christophe Schilling, vice president and CTO of Genomatica. Much of the work required to develop and validate the company’s technology was carried out in microbes, “so the immediate commercialization and the short-term opportunities we always felt were exclusively in the microbial space.”

However, he noted, “while we plan to commercialize microbial opportunities early on, we also have a plan in place to begin the development of human models, obviously related to human disease.”

Genomatica is on track with its commercialization plans for the microbial models, and signed its first commercial agreement for Dow Chemical in September for bioprocess modeling [BioInform 09-23-02]. Selling pharmaceutical companies on the promise of computational cellular modeling may be a bit of a tougher task, but Schilling said he’s willing to wait until both the technology is ready and the user base is willing to put it to work before aggressively marketing it. “We’re certainly not out there pounding the pavement, talking to companies,” he said, “but we do have discussions...that come up from time to time with people that are interested, keeping abreast of the technology.”

In the meantime, the company’s small size (12 employees), “very minimal burn rate,” and steady revenue from both commercial partnerships and government grants are more than enough to carry it through the next stages of research and development required to prepare the SimPheny platform for production-scale research, Schilling said.

The new DARPA SBIR will support research in an area of great interest to the pharmaceutical industry — screening drug candidates for toxicity as early as possible in the discovery process. The company will develop a metabolic model with the goal of predicting the effects of compounds in human cells. However, this project is “just the beginning” of work that Genomatica hopes to accomplish in the area of human metabolic modeling.

“To develop the technology to a point where it can really be commercialized will require a little bit more resources than just one DARPA SBIR grant,” Schiling said. “It depends on the interest that we find in the marketplace and how soon people want to get involved.”

— BT

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