National Editor

With $15 million of equity financing from a Series A private round, Ensemble Discovery Corp. is aiming to use attention-getting technology devised by a professor at Harvard University to go after unmet needs in pharmaceuticals, materials, electronics and chemicals.

"We think this is actually very broadly applicable to many problems, and pharmaceuticals is certainly one of those, but by no means the only one," said Douglas Cole, acting CEO of Ensemble and partner with Cambridge, Mass.-based Flagship Ventures, which founded the company with professor David Liu.

"We have our initial area of focus, but it's one of a number, so we're not discussing where we're going yet," Cole added. Participating in the round along with Flagship were ARCH Venture Partners and Oxford Bioscience Partners, of Boston.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Ensemble will deploy DNA-Programmed Chemistry, which was invented by Liu. Ensemble holds a worldwide exclusive license to patents on the technology, which uses DNA sequences as "miniature machines" to assemble compounds, Cole said. The method combines molecular biology and chemistry with nanotechnology.

"It's not lab on a chip,'" Cole told BioWorld Today. "It's all in solution. Think about how DNA makes proteins, and then imagine that instead of amino acids being brought together by a nucleic acid template, you've got organic reactants being brought together."

Cole, who previously worked for Cytotherapeutics Inc. (known as StemCells Inc. since May 2000), of Lincoln, R.I., and for Cambridge, Mass.-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., noted there are no cells involved, and the whole procedure is done with a simple infrastructure.

"There are processes whereby you link the reactants to pieces of DNA, and then you can mix those pieces together," he explained. Sequences of the DNA that are complementary with each other hybridize, "and then there is a straightforward means to remove the DNA from the reactants. What you get at the end is a library of compounds, each linked to a piece of DNA that has uniquely encoded its synthesis and its identity. DNA is amplifiable, so it's the first time there's been a strategy for organic synthetic chemistry to be done in a manner where information is translated by an amplifiable information carrier."

Liu's first publication was in 2001 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Since then, research on DNA-Programmed Chemistry has appeared in nine peer-reviewed articles, and Liu's honors include the 2003 Excellence in Chemistry award from London-based AstraZeneca plc.

"He's gotten a huge number of awards," Cole said.

In bestowing the honor, AstraZeneca said Liu's research "has pioneered the field of molecular evolution," and developed a new approach to synthetic small molecules and polymers that "captures many advantages of nature's evolution-based systems, using DNA oligonucleotides to direct [their] synthesis. The methodology allows the DNA template associated with each synthetic molecule to be selected for desired properties, amplified by [polymerase chain reaction] and characterized by DNA sequencing."

Cole said the company, still in its early stage, will make known more specific goals as staff members are added.

"We've got a handful of people involved, and we're hiring more," he said.