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Digital Gene Offers Patented Process Free to Select Academic Researchers

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LA JOLLA, Calif.-- When Immunex decided recently that it wanted to use total gene expression analysis (TOGA) technology to expand its inflammatory gastrointestinal disease research, the Seattle biopharmaceutical company agreed to pay up to $93 million plus a share of future revenues to Digital Gene Technologies here for access to a patented process.

The price tag on Digital Gene's method for identifying nearly every gene in a tissue sample is not based on the value of the labor or materials that go into TOGA processing. As Digital Gene President Robert Sutcliffe told BioInform, that cost is relatively low: "The process is automated."

Instead, the company's customers pay according to the potential value of their TOGA-enabled discoveries. Except for academic customers, that is.

Starting now, leading university researchers whose proposals are accepted by Digital Gene's Scientific Advisory Board can use TOGA at no cost other than to reserve for Digital Gene the rights to any commercial opportunities developed with the technology. Digital Gene will then either sell those rights to its commercial collaborators or license the products itself.

To be sure, the company stands to gain. But an altruistic desire to give back to the scientific community is also to thank for such charity. J. Gregor Sutcliffe, Digital Gene's scientific advisory board chairman who invented TOGA while working under an NIH grant at the Scripps Research Institute, "feels a need to advance basic science and to repay the community that underwrote the original research," said his brother Robert, a venture attorney who left a large California firm to help found Digital Gene.

The nature of the technology facilitates this type of arrangement. Said Sutcliffe, "Some other technologies are expensive, labor-intensive practices. Giving those away free would be prohibitive." But TOGA's high-throughput robotic processing method allows Digital Gene to scan 6,000 samples and accommodate 20 partners a year, he said.

The method provides an inventory of gene activity in a sample and constitutes a major new approach to defining gene function. Using high-throughput robotic processing of tissue samples, TOGA lets researchers exploit differential gene expression data and then use bioinformatics software to assess the relative gene expression behavior of any gene present in an experiment. The method helps determine where the gene or its message has been seen before, or if a potentially novel species has been encountered.

The company has signed agreements with three academic collaborators so far, expects to sign another three in coming months, and will soon consider a dozen additional proposals, including research on Down's syndrome, schizophrenia, neural inflammation, and addiction, Sutcliffe said. "There have been lots of very interesting proposals. The scientific advisory board is enjoying this process," he said.

Universities' technology transfer officers seem pleased with the idea too. Few academic institutions have the resources to get access to cutting edge technology like this, Sutcliffe said.

Digital Gene's first academic collaboration, announced this month, will assist another Scripps researcher's oncogenetic investigation. Peter Vogt, head of the division of oncovirology in the department of molecular and experimental medicine at Scripps, will use TOGA to identify and isolate genes that are differentially expressed in chicken cells transformed by the oncogene "jun."

For Vogt's purposes, other approaches to gene identification are not sensitive enough to detect differentially regulated genes expressed in low copy numbers, the scientist said.

Explained Sutcliffe, "Prior to technology like this, people looked at genes one at a time. Now, in Dr. Vogt's cell line, he can look at all 6,000-10,000 genes expressed in his sample of interest at once."

Just how many academic collaborations can Digital Gene afford? "That's a good question," said Sutcliffe. "Our desire is to dedicate 20 percent of our capacity to in-house research and academic collaborations. But our underwriting has to be consistent with what a small company can afford."

Sutcliffe said the scientific advisory board screens proposals for projects that use TOGA technology effectively and for scientists who will publish and show an ability to utilize the discoveries they make with TOGA. After all, Digital Gene gets free marketing when its academic collaborators publicize their TOGA-based research.

Digital Gene promises collaborators a share of net revenues derived in the research field from molecules first highlighted in TOGA assays of project samples, even if the specific molecule is not one the researcher chooses to pursue.

Attracting top notch collaborators won't be a problem, Sutcliffe said. "Once we said it was free we've had an unlimited number of requests."

--Adrienne Burke

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