BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - Nobel Prize winner Sydney Brenner devised a method for obtaining sequence information from thousands of genomes simultaneously, an advance that is relevant to population studies hunting the genes responsible for multifactorial diseases and to pharmacogenomics.

The new company Population Genetics Technologies Ltd. (PGT) has been set up to commercialize that technique with a £1.1 million (US$2.1 million) grant from the Wellcome Trust.

Techniques for obtaining DNA sequences are advancing rapidly, but Sam Eletr, co-founder and CEO of PGT, said, "Our method will be a huge leap forward, as it is expected to provide a significant cost advantage over other techniques, which analyze one genome at a time, no matter how efficiently."

Eletr is a former director of Solexa Ltd., a Cambridge, UK-based DNA sequencing company (now merged with Lynx Therapeutics Inc. and headquartered in the U.S.) and he co-founded the company that became Applied Biosystems Inc. (now part of Applera Corp.), a supplier of DNA sequencing equipment.

Using PGT's method, thousands of samples can be mixed in one test tube and analyzed in one experiment. While existing DNA pooling techniques allow simultaneous analysis of multiple samples, they only provide population-wide characteristics, such as the frequency of gene variation, and not information specific to individual genomes.

The ability to carry out parallel, simultaneous analyses will speed up population screening programs such as UK Biobank. The £61.5 million program is collecting 500,000 DNA samples from middle-aged people across the UK and will monitor their health with the aim of teasing out links between genes, environment and lifestyle in health and disease.

PGT's technology would allow far more information to be abstracted from Biobank, said Tim Peakman, acting CEO of UK Biobank, allowing "totally new questions to be explored."

For example, it would be possible to elucidate genetic changes in expressed genes in many tumor samples and to monitor individual responses to drugs. It would be possible to pinpoint mutations that might not crop up in a clinical trial population, but are responsible for serious side effects that only occur when a drug reaches the market.

Brenner, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2002, said PGT's technology will simplify population screening.

"We do not have to know everything about every gene," he said. "What is important is to discover the variants in genes that contribute to disease."

Phase I pilot studies to test the assessment process for UK Biobank, which claims it will create the largest resource for studying the role of genes and environment in common diseases, began recently in Nottingham. The main project is due to start in January.

PGT will be based in Cambridge and now is looking for venture capital backing.