Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) has taken the first step in its “strategic thrust” into the bioinformatics sector by partnering with LifeSpan BioSciences, said Ray Johnson, vice president of SAIC.
SAIC’s venture arm, SAIC Venture Capital Corporation, acted as lead investor in a $19 million Series C funding round for Seattle-based LifeSpan. SAIC is also contributing image analysis and data mining technologies it has developed in over two decades of work with the US Department of Defense to LifeSpan’s molecular pathology approach to genomic research.
Financial details of the partnership were not disclosed.
Other participants in LifeSpan’s current financing round included Zurich-based Equity4life, current shareholders, and new private investors. The new financing follows placements of $5.2 million and $13.2 million in 1999 and 2000, respectively.
Michael Tippie, vice president of business development at LifeSpan, said that the funding would speed up work on LifeSpan’s flagship offering, a database of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). Tippie said the database is currently around 25 percent complete. When finished, LifeSpan expects it to contain public DNA and protein sequence data as well as proprietary immunohistochemistry data for up to 320 GPCRs in normal and diseased tissues.
“We’ll also be turning out new databases on different gene families and increasingly taking our work in the direction of large databases as opposed to contract research,” added Tippie.
SAIC will help LifeSpan automate its analysis of roughly 2 million tissue samples by applying its image processing and analysis technology to identify genes that are expressed as a function of disease.
In addition to this image-based “virtual pathology system,” Johnson said that SAIC is using its proprietary data mining technology to search a variety of databases — both public and proprietary to LifeSpan — to identify sequences in the human genome that are related to data gleaned from the image-based system.
“Our experience in data mining and analysis allows us to ‘smartly’ search the ever-growing amount of genomic data for hidden patterns that can serve as clues for disease detection and diagnosis,” said Johnson.
This collaboration “will be the first of several” for SAIC in the commercial bioinformatics sector, Johnson said. The San Diego-based research and engineering firm currently has a large staff supporting research at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Md.
“Because of the large, well-educated workforce we have in the Washington and San Diego metro areas, we can support the ever-growing number of commercial and government activities in these locations, and they really are key locations in the bioinformatics business,” said Johnson.
LifeSpan uses its own bioinformatics tools to profile and localize gene expression in normal and diseased human tissues. The GPCR database is the first phase of a comprehensive, integrated database that the company expects to eventually contain detailed information on gene expression in each cell type along with high-resolution digital images.
Pfizer, Novartis Research Foundation, Bristol Myers-Squibb, and Merck have agreed to license the GPCR database on an early-access basis.
Tippie said these companies nominate GPCRs of interest, which are analyzed on a first-come, first-served basis. Tippie said that around four additional licensees are in the pipe- line for the GPCR database, which he described as the “poster child” of gene family databases because “ it’s the most important family and it’s the toughest one to do.”
LifeSpan is considering “the usual suspects” for its next database offering, Tippie said, including kinases, proteases, hormone receptors, and ion channels.
“I think a lot of people agree that if we can do it [with GPCRs] we can do it with just about every family,” Tippie said.