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Short Reads: Dec 23, 2008

Helicos to Raise $18.6M in Private Financing
Helicos BioSciences said last week that it has signed a definitive agreement with institutional and current investors to raise about $18.6 million through a private placement of its shares.
The Cambridge, Mass.-based sequencing technology firm said that net proceeds from the offering will be roughly $17.9 million, which it intends to use for working capital and general corporate purposes.
Under terms of the placement, Helicos agreed to sell approximately 42.8 million units for $.435 per unit. Each unit consists of one common share and one warrant to purchase six-tenths of a share of common stock at an exercise price of 45 cents per share.
The warrants have a five-year term and are exercisable immediately following closing of the transaction, which is expected to occur on or around Dec. 23.
Helicos said that the placement involved certain unnamed institutional investors and previous investors in the firm, including Flagship Ventures, Atlas Venture, Highland Capital, and Versant Ventures.
As of Sept. 30, Helicos had $12.3 million in unrestricted cash, $8.9 million in working capital, and $10.4 million in restricted cash.
During the firm’s third-quarter conference call in early November, Helicos CFO Stephen Hall said that the firm’s cash-burn rate is around $2.5 million per month, or $7.5 million for the balance of the year. He said at the time that the firm was “actively reviewing fundraising opportunities.”
Also last week, Helicos disclosed that it is preparing to place a Helicos Genetic Analysis System at the Broad Institute at no cost in early 2009.

NHGRI Asks for Feedback on Long-Range Planning Process
In an effort to map out its role in supporting genomics research over the coming years, the National Human Genome Research Institute is asking for feedback from the research community on three white papers it has posted on its website.
The institute said that since its inception it has been “guided by a series of plans that have laid out ambitious goals and provided measurable objectives to gauge progress.” It began its last planning process seven years ago, which culminated in a paper, “Vision for the Future of Human Genome Research,” published in the journal Nature in April 2003.
The institute is now seeking to “kickstart a conversation among our community” through the three white papers, which address several relevant topics: diagnostics; preventative medicine and pharmacogenomics; therapeutics; and education and community engagement.
In the first phase of the planning process, NHGRI is seeking comments on the papers through Jan. 30, 2009. It said that it will collect thoughts solely on the questions posed in the papers. The second phase will run from mid-February through mid-April 2009, and will collect responses to questions that are refined following the first phase.
The comments NHGRI collects will be anonymously posted for viewing and will be used to generate topics for further planning activities and workshops, which the institute will hold in 2009 and 2010.
More information about the white papers and NHGRI’s long-range planning is available here.

JCVI to Use Pressure Bio's Sample Prep Technology in Microbiome Study
Pressure BioSciences said last week that the J. Craig Venter Institute has purchased one of the firm’s Barocycler NEP2320 PCT Sample Preparation Systems.
JVCI will use the system, which incorporates the firm’s pressure cycling technology, for its research as part of the NIH-funded Human Microbiome Project. Pressure Bio also intends to provide JCVI with two more instruments for additional studies as part of the collaboration.
In addition to using the instruments, JCVI will further develop the pressure cycling technology for its extraction protocols.
The technology is used for extracting nucleic acids and proteins from samples. Scott Peterson, director of functional genomics research and technology at JCVI, said that it has “the unique ability to extract higher molecular weight DNA for further sequence analysis of the organisms we work with here at JCVI.”
South Easton, Mass.-based Pressure Bio also said that it has sold two PCT Sample Preparation Systems to an unnamed global pharmaceutical company.

NCI to Fund Cellular, Molecular Studies into Cancer Detection
The National Cancer Institute has set aside up to $3 million in fiscal year 2010 to fund development of technologies for molecular or cellular analysis in cancer detection and risk assessment.
Under the Innovative Molecular Analysis Technologies program, NCI plans to support as many as ten investigators studying “exceptionally innovative, high risk, original and/or unconventional exploratory research that potentially could help create new scientific paradigms or overcome barriers in cancer research.”
This IMAT program will fund investigators with R21 grants for exploratory pilot projects over a three-year period with no more than $200,000 per year.
The goal of these grants is to fuel promising research into concepts and ideas that are early in the development stages in several areas that NCI has identified as strategic priorities. The institute wants new technologies for early detection of cancer and risk assessment, analytical technologies with potential clinical utility, and technologies for analyzing cancer at the cellular and molecular levels.
These could include technologies for genomic, proteomic, or epigenomic biomarker detection technologies, cellular imaging technologies, and point-of-care related devices, such as microfluidics or nanotechnology tools.
They also could include ‘omics tools for predicting or monitoring patient response, genotyping technologies, high-throughput screening or biosensor technologies, and pharmacogenomic and toxicogenomic tools, among others.
More information about the program can be found on the NIH’s website 

Survey: Four Out of Five Americans Want Genetic Testing Made More Available
A majority of Americans support advancing genetics research and genetic testing, although more than one third are concerned about the safety guarantees of such science, according to a public opinion survey of public attitudes about biomedical science.
According to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Life Sciences Survey 2008, 80 percent of Americans favor making genetic testing “easily available to all who want it,” around the same amount who felt that way in 2001 and in 2004.
Americans also see genetics as playing a role in their lives, with 45 percent of adults saying that they have a disease or a medical condition that is “strongly related to genetic factors,” an increase of 7 percent over the 2007 survey. The margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
The study, which included 1,005 adults interviewed via telephone, also found that 54 percent of them believe that the benefits of genetic testing outweigh the risks, while 25 percent saw the risks as too great, and 21 percent did not know or refused to answer. That breakdown in opinions has changed slightly over the past eight years, with 57 and 58 percent in 2001 and 2004, respectively, believing that the benefits of genetic testing outweigh the risks.
Among the 80 percent who support making genetic tests easily available to all who want them, 38 percent were “somewhat” in favor of such access and 42 percent were “strongly” supportive.
VCU said that the concerns the public had about genetic research vary, as 38 percent thought that “too little is known about how to conduct such research safely,” 28 percent were concerned that the research may “violate moral principles,” and 21 percent had worries about the potential for discrimination.
Few of those surveyed felt that the government could protect them from any potential perils of genetic research, with 53 percent saying that it could not protect the public from such harms, down slightly from the 57 percent who held that view in the 2007 survey. VCU found that 17 percent believed that the government could keep them safe from such problems.
“The groups with more information about genetics are more likely to give a skeptical response to the idea that government regulation will protect the public from risks linked to genetic science,” VCU said, with those who had more information about science and medicine holding this view more strongly than those who did not.
The survey found that 57 percent of respondents believe that the environment and living practices, not genes, are more important influences on behavior, while 27 percent see it oppositely, and 16 percent did not provide answers or said ‘neither/both’ were important.
Similar belief patterns held for attitudes about disease with 66 percent disagreeing with the idea that “a person’s likelihood for disease is pretty much set from birth,” while 29 percent agreed with that statement.

NHGRI, UVA Begin Program for Genomics Education for Nurses and Physician Assistants
The National Human Genome Research Institute and the University of Virginia have begun a pilot project aimed at helping nursing educators and physician assistants develop new training materials for genomic medicine.
Developed using $100,000 in funding from NHGRI, the open access materials will be freely available on a website that will be used by both nursing educators and physician assistants to help them develop and review educational information on genetics and genomics.
The program, which is scheduled for launch in 2009, is based on the idea that the similarities between the two groups will allow for creating “a shared, integrated learning and content management system” that will allow nursing teachers and doctors’ assistants to post competencies and educational materials and to compare overlaps.
"Most healthcare provider groups have very similar core educational needs in genetics and genomics," NHGRI’s Director for Genomic Medicine, Greg Feero, said in a statement. He said those needs “can be better addressed through this collaborative effort.”
The resources available on the site “will be mapped to genetic competencies in a way that helps the students improve in specific subjects,” according to NHGRI.
“This collaboration helps educators from different professions cross germinate ideas regarding competencies and share teaching and learning tools for genetics," Connie Goldgar, who is director of graduate studies at the Utah Physician Assistant Program at the University of Utah School of Medicine, said in a statement.
The project also is supported by the Physician Assistant Education Association; the American Academy of Physician Assistants; the American Association of Colleges of Nursing; the National League for Nursing; Sigma Theta Tau International; the National Society of Genetic Counselors; as well as the National Coalition for Health Professional Education in Genetics.
AACN President Fay Raines said the site “will be invaluable to nursing school faculty who are working to integrate genetics and genomics content into their curricula, thereby preparing students to provide higher quality patient care."

The Scan

Researchers Develop Polygenic Risk Scores for Dozens of Disease-Related Exposures

With genetic data from two large population cohorts and summary statistics from prior genome-wide association studies, researchers came up with 27 exposure polygenic risk scores in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

US Survey Data Suggests Ancestry Testing Leads Way in Awareness, Use of Genetic Testing Awareness

Although roughly three-quarters of surveyed individuals in a Genetics in Medicine study reported awareness of genetic testing, use of such tests was lower and varied with income, ancestry, and disease history.

Coral Genome Leads to Alternative Amino Acid Pathway Found in Other Non-Model Animals

An alternative cysteine biosynthesis pathway unearthed in the Acropora loripes genome subsequently turned up in sequences from non-mammalian, -nematode, or -arthropod animals, researchers report in Science Advances.

Mosquitos Genetically Modified to Prevent Malaria Spread

A gene drive approach could be used to render mosquitos unable to spread malaria, researchers report in Science Advances.