January 15, 2008 (Vol. 28, No. 2)

Company Has Positioned Itself as a One-stop

LifeCode is being spun out by GATC Biotech (www.gatc-biotech.com) to offer analysis services based on an individual’s genetic codes. The move follows just weeks behind GATC’s launch of a whole human genome sequencing partnership program for industry and academia.

Personalized gene-based health analysis is an emerging and fast-growing market, already being tapped by firms such as Navigenics (www.navigenics.com) and most recently by 23andme (www.23andme.com) as well as deCODE genetics (www.decode.com), explains Peter Pohl, cofounder and CEO, GATC.

“LifeCode will offer personalized and tailored services,” he points out. “The wealth of data on the impact of genes on disease predisposition and prognosis as well as drug response and drug side effects are making the availability of personalized genetic health information more affordable both to the academic community for disease and drug-related research and now also to individuals.”

Offering personalized genetic services through LifeCode is a move that GATC sees as part of a progression to a more long-term prospect of developing rapid, cost-effective sequencing-based diagnostics, a concept that Pohl believes will compete with biochip-based technologies. “There will almost certainly be a major push to harness gene sequencing for routine diagnostic applications, and in the future sequencing technology could even make biochip-based diagnostics for major applications redundant.”

Sequencing Services

The spin-out of LifeCode is thus a logical move for a company claiming to be the only sequencing service provider worldwide to offer all three ultrahigh-throughput sequencing platforms: Applied Biosystems’ SOLiD System (installed in November 2007), the Roche Genome Sequencer FLX, and the Illumina Genetic Analyzer.

“GATC offers its customers and partners completely flexible, tailored sequencing services,” Pohl continues. “Our sequencing capabilities are matched by expertise in custom cDNA and genomic libraries, LAM-PCR, expression cloning, high-throughput DNA preparation, cDNA full-length cloning, and differential gene expression analysis.” GATC is also the official European representative of bioinformatics software from DNASTAR and Softgenetics and offers software from Protein Lounge and Integrated Genomics.

GATC’s use of all four major sequencing platforms (the company also operates an Applied Biosystems’ 3730XL) under one roof means that it has the ability to advise customers and partners on the optimum approach to completing major sequencing programs, points out Marcus Benz, Ph.D., COO.

“Each platform has its own pros and cons with respect to parameters such as read length, capacity, or cost of consumables. Rather than limiting clients to just one system, our experience with all four means we can design and implement the best approach for every large-scale sequencing project and exploit the optimum attributes of each system as appropriate.

“Our expertise has also proven a major benefit for the biomanufacturing industry and the market’s requirements for whole strain sequencing. To date, we have sequenced over 100 microbial genomes for our partners in industry and academia.”

Innovating to Sustain Growth

The flexibility of the company’s services and its emphasis on customer relations at all stages of a project are at least partly responsible for its continued growth, according to Pohl. “We make it as easy as possible for our customers to get their sequences and data analysis as soon as possible, and every member of our team plays an active part in making enhancements to our operation and service offerings. Our internal continuous improvement process leads to many step-by-step improvements and innovations.”

One such innovation was the launch of NightXpress, which GATC claims is the fastest commercial sequencing service worldwide. NightExpress means clients can drop off their plasmid or PCR fragments late in the afternoon or evening and download results the next morning. It is available to clients as part of the company’s Run24, Run24Barcode, and Run24Supreme services.

Since its founding in 1990, Germany-based GATC has grown into an international entity with 60 employees and distribution subsidiaries in the U.K., France, and Sweden. Despite increasing competition in an industry with a growing number of sequencing providers, GATC reports that its share of the market continues to grow steadily.

The GATC of today is, however, unrecognizable from the original family business, which was set up with just DEM2,000 worth of equipment. The company says that it then further developed the world’s first, nonradioactive sequencing technology platform, patented by Pohl’s father at the University of Konstanz in Germany.

The first evolutionary milestone in GATC’s growth was its participation during the early 1990s in the European Saccharomyces cerevisiae genome project. GATC used this program to springboard its patented direct blotting electrophoresis system, the GATC 1500.

While continuing to work on the yeast genome project and commercializing the sequencing platform, GATC also kept abreast of market developments and emerging trends. This led the company in 1996 to divert its efforts away from selling its own sequencing platform to concentrating on the provision of sequencing services, Pohl explains.

“We realized that we couldn’t compete with the new sequencing technologies coming into the market from companie so, during the mid-to-later 1990s, we focused on building our own custom sequencing business and participating in major collaborative academic sequencing projects like Arabidopsis, yeast, and leishmania.”

After realizing that the big sequencing projects of the late 1990s would also be too big for a single sequencing company to tackle alone, GATC cofounded the Gene Alliance network. It was set up as a consortium of five German biotech companies that continued to operate independently but also combined their expertise for participation in major genome sequencing programs.

The Gene Alliance Network

“While companies like LION and Genset were investing heavily in sequencing capacity, we were skeptical about whether during this period of the 1990s there was any commercial sense in any one individual company investing in such large-scale capabilities.

“The answer was the Gene Alliance network, a successful partnership that allowed each member to build up its own business without the need for prohibitive investment in capacity. In 2001 the Alliance completed sequencing the Aspergillus niger genome for DSM in the Netherlands. Completed in just nine months, the 38 Mb genome represented the largest industrial genome project ever carried out in Europe.”

With a current sequencing capacity of over 350 gigabases per year, GATC believes it is ideally placed to achieve its goal of sequencing up to 100 human genomes by the end of 2010 in collaboration with strategic partners from academia and industry.

“GATC is fast to respond to market requirements and trends and rapidly adapts to meet the market head-on,” Pohl concludes. “I am confident that as time moves on, exponential improvements in gene-sequencing capabilities will allow the industry and researchers to view whole or partial human genome sequencing as an affordable tool.”

The company’s long-term goal is to make the “500 euro genome” a reality within the next 10 years and personalized medicine and diagnostics an achievable prospect for future generations.

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