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Bioinformatics Efforts Rewarded by Small Business Innovation Research Grants

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BETHESDA, Md.--Several of the Small Business Innovation Research Grants recently announced by the National Institutes of Health here have been won by companies working with bioinformatics. Innovation and the potential for commercialization are two of the main criteria used in the evaluation process for the US government program, which is designed to support projects conducted by small business concerns.

Criteria for defining the critical "small business" category include whether or not the company is independently owned and operated and whether it is an affiliate of a larger organization with over 500 employees, when the number of employees of both the parent and affiliate companies are added together.

Established in 1992, the grant program is organized in three phases. Phase I aims to establish the technical merit and feasibility of proposed R&D efforts and to determine the performance quality of the recipient. Phase I awards are generally for six months and don't exceed $100,000. If Phase I objectives are met, the company may qualify for further support in Phase II, in which Phase I projects are continued with funding based on Phase I results and the scientific, technical, and commercial potential of the endeavor. Phase II awards are for a period of two years or less, are nonrenewable, and don't exceed $750,000. Finally, in Phase III, the company pursues commercialization of the results of the earlier research with funding from nongovernment sources.

The amount set aside for the Small Business Innovation Research program in fiscal 1997, which ended September 30, was $245.7 million, an increase of more than $61 million from the previous year. The estimated budget for the program in fiscal 1998 is $260 million-$265 million. Among bioinformatics-related winners this year:

* Miicro, a bioinformatics contract research organization based in Chicago, earned an award to further develop its neuroimaging services, which are used in clinical drug trials. The company's patented technology, the OMEI method, utilizes positron emission tomography to relate a condition in the brain to a stimulus effect through analysis of statistical metabolic image data. Miicro also has a directed research program aimed at developing more applications for the OMEI method.

"This SBIR grant will allow us to refine our work in this important area," commented Ciaran Cooper, Miicro's president and CEO. The company was also granted a US patent on the technique this month. Privately held, Miicro is currently involved in a second round of financing that officials hope will allow it to proceed to an initial public offering.

* Proteome, based in Beverly, Mass., received a two-year, $750,000 Phase II grant for further development of its Yeast Protein Database, a comprehensive proteome database for Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The database contains functional annotations and protein property information for each of the approximately 6,000 proteins in the yeast proteome.

The project will complete a literature review encompassing more than 11,000 research papers relevant to understanding the biology of the yeast cell, and will develop new information services based on the database, which is used by biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies in connection with genomic research and genome annotation. Correlations between the human and yeast genomes have proven valuable in such tasks as identifying and analyzing the function of human disease genes including the colon cancer gene hMSH2 (yeast MSH2) and the Friedreich's ataxia gene frataxin (yeast YFH1), according to Proteome.

* Sequana Therapeutics, a genomics company based in La Jolla, Calif., was awarded a Phase I grant to support development of its Rapid Mouse Model Production (RAMMP) transgenics technology, which is an integral part of Sequana's functional genomics platform. RAMMP has already been used successfully by the company to identify and characterize disease-related genes. It makes use of novel gene inactivation methods to create mouse knockouts at a rate up to 50 times faster than conventional approaches. Sequana has predicted that the increased throughput will accelerate the discovery of drug targets.

"RAMMP should accelerate the target discovery process by improving the accessibility of the mouse as a model system," commented Ted Choi, Sequana's head of mouse transgenics and project leader for the RAMMP program. "The potential for revolutionizing mouse transgenics is significant."

In September 1996 NemaPharm, Sequana's wholly owned subsidiary, also received a Small Business Innovation Research grant, to support development of NemaScreen, its proprietary high-throughput screening technology that makes use of the C. elegans model system. Sequana is now using C. elegans technologies for several of its internal discovery programs, as well as in connection with a functional genomics alliance with Glaxo Wellcome. "The Small Business Innovation Research grant program has proven to be an excellent supplementary funding mechanism for our functional genomics initiatives," commented Scott Salka, Sequana's vice-president of operations and chief financial officer.

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