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Compugen Broadens Scope For Leads Platform, Pushing Into Agriculture Market

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TEL AVIV--Compugen is making a concentrated effort to market its Leads computational biology platform to agricultural biotechnology companies around the world, according to a Compugen executive. The bioinformatics company, headquartered here with offices in the US, has, until now, focused sales strategies in the pharmaceutical market. But by demonstrating the product's effectiveness with Arabidopsis data, Compugen said it is convincing ag biotech companies of the potential uses for Leads in agricultural genomics research.

After being commercially available for about six months, the Leads platform is beginning to generate interest within the agricultural genomics arena, said Lior Ma'ayan, Compugen's vice-president and chief operating officer. The software package integrates several technologies that handle genomic and expressed sequence data to deliver putative genes, mutations, spliced variants, and other biologically important information.

Compugen recently expanded Leads' focus on human and mouse data to include public plant data, even though such public data are "quite scarce," commented Ma'ayan. Compugen is clustering data, using several models to depict biological phenomena on the computational level, and generating data on plant genes, he added.

Researchers and developers at several major ag biotech companies worldwide were presented with and generally impressed by Compugen's demonstration using Arabidopsis to show how Leads could be applied to the agricultural domain, claimed Ma'ayan, who added, "It was proof that it can do what we say it can do." Compugen also took things a bit further by running proprietary data from the life sciences companies through Leads to generate novel information. He declined to name the ag bio companies involved.

Arabidopsis is not the first plant with which Compugen has worked, although company officials said they are unable to discuss other projects because they involve customers' proprietary information. Ma'ayan also declined to name the several life sciences companies at which Leads is already being employed for plant genomics research. An announcement regarding one such project is planned within the next few weeks, said Ma'ayan.

Leads enables users to discover suspected genes on a computer simulation level by assembling expressed and genomic information, explained Ma'ayan, "so we are able to find a putative gene to search for homologies versus the same plant or versus other organisms, including animals." Identification of alternative splicing, although not as frequent in plants as in higher organisms, is still an important feature of the product for agriculture customers, said Ma'ayan. Still, its main advantages are the speed and quality of its results, enabled by proprietary algorithms and data management capabilities.

The platform is an integration of several algorithms and other software that can be customized to suit the needs of a specific customer, said Ma'ayan, explaining, "It's not shrink-wrapped, plug-and-play software. Customization is critical because of the different needs, not only between pharma and ag bio, but within those industries," he said. Companies tend to have different data and information preferences, especially regarding what to extract from the data, he commented.

Monsanto is among existing customers of Compugen's Bioaccelerator tool, homology search hardware that increases the speed of both public and proprietary algorithms for homology searches by a factor of 100 or 1,000, Ma'ayan said. The Leads platform and Compugen's hardware are at different points in their respective lifecycles, he added, explaining, "Hardware is still a reasonably interesting field for us, but we are focusing lately on pushing the Leads platform for pharma and ag bio applications." Having recently reached a milestone in its Leads agreement with Parke-Davis, Ma'ayan said the company is looking to sign similar deals with agriculture companies this year.

The company also opened a research, development, and support site in Jamesburg, NJ, to be closer to US-based ag bio and pharma companies. "It's not only a support facility, it's a genuine R&D facility where we are recruiting people and relocating people either from Israel or from the States," he said. One reason for establishing such a facility nearby US customers is to assist in customizing products for them.

--Matthew Dougherty

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