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UK Academics, Researchers Launch Firm to Meet Bioinformatics Outsourcing Demands


LONDON--Ken Powell, CEO of Inpharmatica, a "bioinformatics solutions" provider launched here this year, claimed his new company will fill a niche in bioinformatics not by commercializing its proprietary tools, but by applying them in-house to pharmaceutical companies' data. The strategy of the firm, which was established by University College London, the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, five leading academicians, and Unibio, a provider of venture funding, will be to offer genomics data analysis and target discovery on a contract basis.

Market research that Inpharmatica conducted among European and US pharmaceutical companies suggested that few outside the top 10 have significant bioinformatics capability. "Our research shows that very few companies are self-sufficient in bioinformatics," said Powell. "Many are sitting on valuable data that they are not able to handle effectively. We will make the data manageable and apply it to drug discovery."

Inpharmatica said it will not emphasize the commercialization of its software, although it might market a search engine that would allow companies to process their own data in-house. "We are in the business of selling know-how rather than selling product X," an official explained.

To begin providing that know-how to customers, Inpharmatica has recruited 12 scientists and said it will double the staff during the next year. Unibio provided an initial £1 million seed funding and intends to raise a further £2-3 million before the end of the year. Officials said the company expects to become profitable within the next 18 months and added that they are already in discussions with "major US partners and several biotechnology companies in Europe."


Powell, who also serves as deputy director of the Wolfson Institute and was previously head of biology at the Wellcome Foundation, explained that to make optimal use of sequence data, pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries require a complete description of all the proteins encoded by a genome, which should ideally also comprise a prioritized list of potential targets for drug discovery and relevant diagnostic tests. Even highly trained molecular biologists are rarely equipped to assess such relationships, he contended.

According to independent research Inpharmatica consulted, the inability of many companies to exploit the increasing quantity and complexity of accessible genomics data will lead to 20-30 percent of R&D investment being spent on outsourced services in the next five years, he added.

Inpharmatica is poised to fill the niche by exploiting 20 years of research conducted at the Joint Research School in Biomolecular Structure at University College, headed by Janet Thornton, Inpharmatica's chief scientist. Her team has been focused on improving protein structure prediction from sequence data, as well as comparative structure and modeling techniques.

Under an agreement with the university, the company retains rights to exploit some existing and future software packages while developing its own analytical tools. In addition to advanced genome and protein structure analysis, Inpharmatica offers custom target identification, target validation, and drug discovery.

"Inpharmatica can ease the serious bottleneck that has emerged in converting raw sequence data into high-quality information," Powell claimed. "Our technology detects extremely distant sequence relationships that are unavailable to our competitors. This allows us to select not only obvious targets as selected by standard bioinformatics software, but also to identify hidden targets."

Because of the immense computing time required for such calculations, searches will be performed on a farm of 100 Alpha processors. Results will be conveyed to clients as a relational database served by an advanced Java interface that provides a powerful, intuitive research tool, according to the company.

For target validation and drug discovery, Inpharmatica will work in partnership with the Wolfson Institute, which was originally set up to perform drug discovery research for commercial clients and has capabilities for identifying and optimizing lead molecules.

The company is initially focused on antimicrobials, taking advantage of the fact that complete sets of genomic data for important human pathogens are now available in the public domain and private databases. Inpharmatica extracts the maximum useful information from the raw sequence data using its proprietary software. Wolfson provides biological verification and prioritization of targets through standard genetic techniques. The company can then proceed with lead identification.

Part of target prioritization involves the selection of those molecules offering the best prospects for the development of inhibitors. Customized libraries of potential lead molecules are screened against in vitro assays and against the target bacterium itself. Molecules reaching this stage of development can then be further refined through preclinical development until a robust molecule is derived, ready to enter the clinical development process.

--Paul Wymer

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