By Matthew Willett
LifeSpan BioSciences Inc., which specializes in the profiling and localizing of gene expression in human diseases, raised $19 million in a Series C financing.
The third financing to date for the Seattle company, its largest, will fund efforts to automate and otherwise enhance its high-throughput expression analysis tools, build new family databases and launch new disease databases.
SAIC Venture Capital Corp., the venture capital arm of Science Applications International Corp., of San Diego, led the round. Current shareholders, unnamed new private investors, and equity4life, of Zurich, Switzerland, also participated in the financing.
LifeSpan CEO Joesph Brown said he's delighted with the financing, one completed at a difficult time for raising capital.
"When we started LifeSpan in 1995, it was a significant year for genomics. Large-scale sequencing was getting under way, and a lot of disease genes were being identified by positional cloning," Brown told BioWorld Today. "We realized at that time that genetic expression would be increasingly more important, and that's where we've focused our efforts from the beginning."
The difference, he said, between LifeSpan and the host of other companies pursuing gene expression data, is in the method. LifeSpan focuses on finding the needle-like gene target in the haystack-like tissue samples it has catalogued the old-fashioned way, with microscopes, but with a new twist.
LifeSpan uses a molecular pathology method for localizing and profiling gene expression. The company uses antibodies and its bank of normal and pathological tissue specimens to measure G protein-coupled receptors, and it has created a relational database that provides GPCR expression data with high-resolution digital images for each cell type in the tissues and diseases studied.
"We look at expression of genes and proteins in normal human tissue across the body. In contrast to what almost everyone else in the field is doing, what we're doing is looking through a microscope," Brown said. "If you run a gene chip or do an EST sequence database before you do that you're making a homogenate of a tissue sample. In grinding up the tissue you lose a lot of information.
"What we do instead," he continued, "is to use tissue imbedded in sections on microscope slides, using stained probes for RNA or antibodies to stain proteins. Those basic technologies like in situ hybirdization have been around for a long time, but what we've done is applied those on an industrial scale. We have a very large bank, 2 million tissue samples, and we've worked out how to use these in an increasingly high-throughput system."
He said the process actually makes more sense from an efficiency standpoint. "[Current gene expression profiling methodology] is like taking a haystack and a needle and grinding them up, then trying to find the needle. With the microscope we can see thousands of cells and only one will be stained. It's like making the needle shine."
And it is to that end - increasing its throughput - that the company will use funding from this round of investment. By automating many, but not all, of the duties of the molecular pathologist, he said, LifeSpan can find needles faster and faster.
"What we're doing here now that we have the technology established is ramping up the scale," Brown said. "We're building instrumentation to stain slides, automating instruments to capture images automatically, and creating software to interpret images automatically and put those reports in a database. We expect to see a 100-fold increase in throughput."
That increase in throughput through the creation of an "automated molecular pathologist" will come in spurts, Brown said - a 10-fold increase over the next 12 months and a 10-fold increase over that amount in the 12 months that follow. The company's current throughput is about two genes per day, or about 700 genes per year.
"What [the increased throughput will] allow us to do is to look at a very large fraction, if not all, of the genes in the human genome," he said.
LifeSpan last raised capital in March 2000. That $13.5 million round roughly coincided with the company's database subscription deal with Pfizer Inc., of New York. (See BioWorld Today, March 8, 2000.)
This financing comes similarly on the heels of a major pharmaceutical company database subscription deal. In January, Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck & Co. subscribed to LifeSpan's GPCR database. In addition to Merck and Pfizer, Bristol Myers-Squibb Co., of New York, and the Novartis Research Foundation, a division of Novartis AG, of Basel, Switzerland, also have access to the database.
The future for LifeSpan is in a public market, Brown said.
"We're looking at a public offering in the next 12 to 18 months," he said. "It will depend on market conditions, but that's our plan." n