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NEC Bioinformation Division Partners with Nippon Kayaku on Simulation Software

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Tokyo’s NEC is counting on a collaboration with Japanese pharmaceutical company Nippon Kayaku to help bring some of its technology out of the bowels of its research lab and into the bioinformatics marketplace.

The two companies are partnering on a two-year project to merge several simulation technologies developed in NEC’s research lab with the life science know-how of Nippon Kayaku’s researchers. The goal is a tool that will effectively model the interactions between proteins and small molecules in three dimensions, while including the effect of solvents, said Shun Doi, chief manager at NEC’s bioinformation division. The first target area for the researchers will be anti-cancer drugs.

Following the two-year research project, NEC intends to have a commercial version of the in silico tool on the market within a year, Doi told BioInform.

While unable to disclose the financial terms of the collaboration, Doi said NEC would receive royalties on sales of any drugs discovered using the technology.

The in silico discovery software proved successful in some preliminary tests in HIV research at a Japanese university, Doi said, but the Nippon Kayaku collaboration will be the first commercial trial for the system. NEC is following a similar path for another technology it hopes to apply in the life science market: Following a university collaboration on a data mining system to discover promising ligands, NEC is now partnering with another pharmaceutical company on a commercial-grade version of that system as well.

Until now, NEC’s presence in the life science market has been limited to its IT platform sales, “but we don’t intend to stay an IT platform provider,” said Doi. The company launched the bioinformation business unit in September of 2000 with the goal of commercializing technologies that have been under development in the company’s research lab since the early 1990s. Around 50 NEC employees currently work in various aspects of the life science informatics group, he estimated.

Fiscal 2001 revenue from life science platform sales were on the order of 1 billion yen ($8.3 million), but the company sees a great deal more revenue potential in IT services and drug discovery tools, Doi said.

It appears that NEC’s greatest market opportunity in the life sciences may be in as-yet uncharted territory, however. As an early mover in the nanotechnology market, the company sees a significant role for its tools “in the integration of the IT, nanotechnology, and biotechnology domains,” Doi said. NEC sees protein sequencing, detection, and separation as key application areas for a combined IT/nanotech/biotech assault. Protein analysis technology is still relatively primitive compared to DNA analysis technology, Doi noted, and the triple-pronged high-tech approach may be the only way to bring “modern techniques and methods” to the field.

— BT

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