Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS - It's been well over a decade since ReliaGene Technologies Inc. opened the doors on its DNA analysis business, but the company quickly established a footprint in a region that has fostered more than its fair share of biological research over the years.

"Louisiana can be on the cutting edge," ReliaGene's founder Sudhir Sinha said, "and we are."

Also the company's president and lab director, he attributed its early development in large part to a local business incubator - JEDCO, the Jefferson Parish Economic Development Corp. Such cooperation between the biotechnology industry and local commerce initiatives is nothing new, and in Louisiana and the greater New Orleans metro area, several biotech-related beacons shed light on the region's research efforts.

With seven large universities, as well as several other government- and privately funded-research institutes, the Big Easy and its surroundings are rife with opportunity.

New Orleans-based ReliaGene is one such success story. The 70-employee company operates in DNA testing for forensic, paternity and molecular diagnostic applications. Its testing services include nuclear STR, Y-chromosome DNA testing, mitochondrial DNA and restriction fragment-length polymorphism, among others.

Its forensic business draws the widest scope of attention.

"We were among the first four or five DNA labs in the country to get accredited for DNA testing," Sinha said. "We're doing everything on the right side - the truth."

He and others on privately held ReliaGene's staff frequently testify in court cases, often during sensational criminal trials, and its client base includes local, state, national and international investigators looking to solve crimes. The DNA testing also has anthropologic applications, as well as other less attention-grabbing uses, as evidenced by its testing history to date that includes more than 300,000 biological samples.

Another genetic analysis business, GeneScan USA Inc., provides food-testing services for genetically modified products. Michael Russell, president of the Belle Chasse, La.-based company, explained a regulatory need for the testing, which includes ELISA- and PCR-based services. The U.S. subsidiary of GeneScan-Europe AG, of Freiburg, Germany, GeneScan USA is in the process of moving its facilities from the eastern fringes of the New Orleans area to Jefferson Parish, a suburb to the west of the city.

Aside from the commercial success at ReliaGene and GeneScan, earlier-stage research is breaking forth from area universities as well.

Tulane University's Health Sciences Center, located in the heart of the Crescent City, features a gene therapy lab that recently received $4.3 million in funding from a five-year federal grant. Lead researcher Darwin Prockop heads a team focusing its efforts on using adult stem cells, which it has determined might be useful in treating spinal cord injury, cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, emphysema, heart damage and other conditions.

"We're looking to tap the natural repair system," said Prockop, whose team also demonstrated its ability to grow stem cells in a seemingly limitless supply. The Tulane Center for Gene Therapy also recently received funding from two other government-sponsored, four-year grants - $1.75 million to study adult stem cells' ability to repair heart damage, and $1.5 million to evaluate their use in treating lung disease. All three awards stem from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

Additional university-backed efforts are led by Nicholas Bazan, who founded St. Charles Pharmaceuticals Inc. in New Orleans. Spun out of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, the early stage business is focusing its initial neuroscience efforts on a compound called SCP-1. The drug is the lead compound in the company's acetaminophen analogue and derivative program. The painkiller is designed to avoid ill effects on the liver associated with other painkillers, without masking fever.

Beyond those initiatives, researchers from LSU and Tulane have begun to work more collaboratively to foster further regional scientific growth.

A long-standing contributor to local research efforts, the Tulane National Primate Research Center is located more than 30 miles north of the city in Covington, La. Dedicated in 1964, the facility sits on more than 500 acres of land on the other side of Lake Ponchatrain, where it maintains about 5,000 nonhuman primates as the largest of eight such federally supported centers.

And, said its director, Andrew Lackner, the facility's growth continues.

"There is about $25 million of construction ongoing into 2006," he said, adding that the bulk of the funding comes from the NIH. "And this is greatly increasing our capabilities."

Its primary research focus lies in infectious diseases such as AIDS, Lyme disease, malaria, microsporidiosis, tuberculosis and West Nile virus.

Animal research of a different sort takes place at the Audubon Nature Institute. Its Center for Research of Endangered Species, located on New Orleans' West Bank across the Mississippi River, recently produced the first clone of an endangered species. Named Ditteaux, the three-month-old African wildcat received its donor material from another African wildcat of scientific repute, Jazz, produced through the first interspecies frozen and thawed embryo transfer.

"We are here to develop reproductive technologies to save endangered species," Director Betsy Dresser said. "Our mission is conservation through scientific research."

Audubon's researchers also produced the first caracal cat created from a frozen embryo. Other efforts under way at the facility, which resides in a 1,200-acre parcel of land operated as the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center, include the development of a frozen zoo that banks the genetic material of endangered species with the goal of preserving their heritage down the road.

With the Audubon name a recognizable signature on parks, a zoo and aquarium in and around the New Orleans area, the area's biological research is clearly visible. And as additional research and business opportunities continue to grow, the region intends to expand its scientific footprint beyond the Queen of the Mississippi.