By Randall Osborne

West Coast Editor

Aiming to become something more than another chip off the old genetic block, Zyomyx Inc. has developed arrays of fully functioning proteins - Proteomics Biochips - that it says will make an important kind of sense from the data gleaned by genome sequencing efforts.

Founded in July 1998, Zyomyx raised about $22 million in a private placement last month and intends to make its chips available to selected customers through a technology-access program next year.

The chips make up part of what the company calls "an integrated analytical system" to detect specific antigens in complex samples, such as cell lysates.

"We think we've been the first movers in the market," said Lawrence Cohen, chief operating officer of Hayward, Calif.-based Zyomyx.

Parallel, miniaturized formats for analyzing genetic material have long been available, and Zyomyx offers a similar methodology to examine protein structures which, because they are more delicate, present a particular challenge.

"It's timely," Cohen said, noting that genome-sequencing efforts have borne fruit quickly, and sequencing leader Celera Genomics, of Rockville, Md., has made known its plan to turn toward proteomics. Celera raised $855 million in a public offering last month, partly to boost the proteomics effort. (See BioWorld Today, March 2, 2000, p. 1.)

Zyomyx's core technology targets the interface between the surface of the microdevice and the immobilized biomolecule. Surfaces are engineered to prevent nonspecific binding, denaturation and deactivation, which are drawbacks common to the immobilization techniques used now.

Building on what it has learned in making protein chips, Zyomyx is lining up to provide optimized surfaces to the established market for printed DNA biochips as well. Beta-site testing is expected to begin by the end of this year.

"We don't intend to enter that market ourselves," Cohen said. "There are two [other] ways to do it. We can collaborate with the people who make off-the-shelf chips, but the other possibility is marketing to the people who make their own chips. Almost everybody in this area does it now," he added, citing South San Francisco-based Genentech Inc. as an example.

"Typically, they're spotted arrays, lower density but very fluid, adaptable devices," Cohen said. "It's an hypothesis-driven way to garner information."

He said "the interaction of DNA with these substrates has almost been more art than science. It's difficult, in the absence of knowing what's driving the interaction, to get high reproducibility" - a problem that Zyomyx's engineered surfaces are designed to get around.

Zyomyx, with 55 employees, has raised about $30 million so far, Cohen said, adding that the company has about $23 million in cash on hand, enough to last two years.

New investors in the most recent placement of Series C preferred stock included eHealth Technology Fund, Burrill & Co. and Singapore Bio-Innovation of America, which joined existing investors Skyline Ventures, Alloy Ventures, Lombard Odier & Cie, and H&Q Capital Management Inc.