AMSTERDAM, the Netherlands ¿ The gene-therapy technology company IntroGene BV, of Leiden, the Netherlands, and the bioinformatics company Tibotec NV, of Mechelen, Belgium, have set up a joint venture to specialize in high-throughput functional genomics.

Announcing the formation of Galapagos Genomics NV at the European Life Sciences Conference here last week, Onno van de Stolpe, managing director, said functional genomics represents ¿the key advance in biotechnology. The combination of IntroGene¿s viral technology with the automation and bioinformatics know-how of Tibotec will propel Galapagos to the forefront of this fast-moving field.¿

The founders will invest US$20 million over the next three years in the joint venture. Galapagos currently has 20 staff members, and the number will rise to 30 by the end of 1999.

The Galapagos approach to high throughput gene screening involves incorporating human genes into adenoviral vectors, creating extensive libraries. These adenoviral expression libraries can then be used to efficiently introduce genes of interest into various cell types where their protein products are expressed and studied in the environment of a real cell. This enables screening for specific gene functions and, ultimately, the identification and validation of drug targets and gene-therapy products.

¿We are able to assign functions to genes in a specific cell,¿ van de Stolpe said. ¿The strength of the joint venture will be the combination of a large collection of unknown genes with a way of screening them quickly, leading to fast identification of drug targets.¿

Within the next year Galapagos plans to launch its screening product, called Phenoselect, and to demonstrate that it can be used to discover drug targets. It also plans to offer a custom adenovirus service, putting genes identified by customers into adenoviruses and running it through the cell-based assays or animal models.

Van de Stolpe notes that the pharmaceutical industry is facing a big dilemma. Despite the number of genes discovered, they have so far yielded only a low number of new drug targets. ¿This is because they are only looking at the gene and not at its function,¿ he said. ¿Functional genomics will be very important to the whole pharmaceutical community, and we are starting with a strong technology position at the forefront of this area.¿ n