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Knome, BGI Forge Sequencing Alliance; GATC Spins Off Personal Genomics Unit

Personalized genomics startup Knome said last week that it has teamed up with the Beijing Genomics Institute to provide genome-sequencing and -analysis services.
Meanwhile, German DNA sequencing service provider GATC Biotech last week announced it has spun off a company called LifeCode that will offer array-based genome analyses to individuals.
The two announcements represent different strategies in the nascent field of personal genomic services. While Knome offers a high-cost sequencing-based product to a select number of individuals, LifeCode will start with a lower-cost array-based product, believing that despite its parent company’s experience with next-generation sequencing technologies, the time is not ripe to offer such a service to consumers.
Knome and BGI
Under its partnership with BGI, Knome will have exclusive access to BGI’s sequencing, assembly, and annotation capabilities.
Knome CEO Jorge Conde told In Sequence last week that when Knome, which does not have its own labs, was looking for a potential sequencing partner last fall, a mutual colleague introduced him to representatives of the Beijing Genomics Institute.
BGI has a large fleet of sequencers – including more than 100 Sanger sequencers, seven Illumina Genome Analyzers, and two ABI SOLiDs – and has more than 100 bioinformaticians on staff. It has already sequenced the genome of a Chinese individual, a project that is not yet published (see In Sequence 9/25/2007). Because of this expertise, “it made a lot of sense to talk to them as a sequencing partner,” Conde said. In addition, BGI was able to offer “a very high-quality product at a very competitive price.”
Earlier this month, BGI also said it will sequence 100 human genomes as part of the Yanhuang Project, a research study aimed at discovering genetic polymorphisms in the Chinese population (see In Sequence 1/8/2008).
“As we continued to talk to them, it became very clear that they had very complementary capabilities to what we are developing here at Knome,” Conde said.
Under the collaboration, BGI will sequence and assemble DNA samples provided through Knome. The partners will jointly analyze and interpret the genome data, involving both BGI’s bioinformatics staff and Knome’s experts.
“They have a very skilled team, and a very large team, that has done this before,” Conde said. “They are in a very strong position to provide and add a tremendous amount of value there.”
Initially, he said, BGI will likely use Illumina’s Genome Analyzer for its sequencing service, the platform it used to sequence the Chinese individual’s genome last year. However, BGI could choose another sequencing technology, or combination of technologies, as it sees fit.
“We will use what in their estimation is the best approach,” Conde said.
Knome is developing “the consumer-facing part of the business: our interpretative tools,” Conde said. It will also retain “sole responsibility for the client interactions.”
In order to ensure privacy, any information that contains identifiers will stay with Knome alone, and Knome maintains “any analysis that requires the inclusion of personal information.” BGI will also be required to destroy any backup information once an analysis has been completed and accepted by the client. The sequence data will ultimately only “be maintained through Knome and the client.”
Teaming up with BGI also enabled Knome to immediately start marketing its services outside of the US. “This gives us the opportunity to have a global footprint very quickly,” Conde said, noting that both BGI and Knome will promote the service under Knome’s brand. Initially, Knome plans to offer its service to no more than 20 customers.
A “significant proportion” of the service’s price, which starts at $350,000, is related to direct sequencing costs, Conde said. For a higher price, clients can request a higher sequence coverage as well as more individualized and extensive interpretation services.
German DNA sequencing provider GATC Biotech is taking a different approach. “Sequencing, in our opinion, is still too expensive for the [average] citizen to get to know more about their own genes,” GATC’s CEO Peter Pohl told In Sequence last week. He and his colleagues just spun out LifeCode, which he will also head as CEO.
With an undisclosed amount of funding from private investors, LifeCode will provide genome scans to private clients starting in April. The company says it will be the first company to do so in the European Union. Over the next few months, in preparation to launch its service, LifeCode will move into its own space and hire its first employees.

“The scientific knowledge about genetic data, one has to admit, is still small.”

Unlike GATC Biotech, which offers DNA sequencing services, including human genome sequencing (see In Sequence 11/13/2007), to academic and industrial researchers, LifeCode will initially offer analyses of array-based genotyping scans.
Like Knome, LifeCode will use an outside service provider to generate the data but has yet to decide whether this will be GATC Biotech, which has no prior experience with genotyping services, or another supplier.
It has also not yet decided which genotyping platform to use. “Basically, there are two big ones to decide between,” Pohl said, without mentioning Illumina and Affymetrix by name.
LifeCode will focus on providing “validated analytical services” to European customers in German, French, and English. Services will be provided through a laboratory with “a specific GLP or GLP-like standard for providing analytical services, so the information will be reliable,” Pohl said.
According to Pohl, though specifics about the service are not yet available, the company wants to concentrate on “offering serious health information” relating to specific disease areas, similar to what Navigenics has said it will offer in the US (see In Sequence 11/13/2007).
The cost of the service has not been determined yet but “it will not be more than Navigenics,” he said. Navigenics has said it will price its initial service at approximately $2,500.
LifeCode clients will receive a web-based analysis of their genome, and the company offers to refer them to medical specialists for consultations by phone or in person.
Like Knome, LifeCode places special emphasis on both privacy and data security. “The data will be owned only by the person who has ordered the service,” Pohl said. However, LifeCode will facilitate data sharing between clients who are interested in doing so, as well as participation in research studies.
GATC has 10 years of experience with “highly secure, private data transfer management,” he added.
Long term, LifeCode will likely switch over to sequencing technologies. “Down the road, there will be sequencing, it’s a question of when it will take off,” Pohl said. “Our vision is €500 for a complete genome in 10 years.”
The timing of this switch to sequencing will be determined by the cost, but also by how well sequence data can be interpreted. “The scientific knowledge about genetic data, one has to admit, is still small,” Pohl said, but he expects it will grow over the next months and years.  

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