By Mary Welch

Aiming to become a major player in pharmacogenomics, Orchid Biocomputer Inc. acquired Molecular Tool for an undisclosed amount.

"To some extent, Molecular Tool was a little under the radar screen and not well known," said Dale Pfost, chairman and CEO of Princeton, N.J.-based Orchid. "It was a real find, and a perfect fit for us."

Molecular Tool, of Baltimore, is a research and development subsidiary of Dallas-based GeneScreen Inc. The deal pairs Orchid's ultra high-throughput microfluidics technology with Molecular Tool's single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) analytic chemistry and genetic bit analysis (GBA) capabilities.

Together, the technologies should build an SNP analytic platform that will provide faster, more flexible tools to analyze correlations between SNPs and specific genotypes, diseases and therapeutics.

"We had been looking at pharmacogenomics and pharmacogenetics companies for a long time and, when we looked at all the expression and genotyping being developed now, we were amazed that this company was in it as early as they were," Pfost said.

Multiple Partners, Applications Foreseen

Molecular Tool's employees have been offered positions at Orchid's headquarters, he added.

"When Molecular Tool joined GeneScreen, it joined a company that was driven toward profitability, and Molecular Tool — as the research and development arm — was sidelined," Pfost said. "The employees there are realizing that our vision for the company is similar to their original vision. We want to keep these employees together and are motivating them to stick around."

An SNP, the most common type of DNA sequence variation, is a change in a single base pair at a particular position along the DNA strand. When an SNP occurs, the gene's function may change, causing it to develop, for example, a bacterial resistance to antibiotics. SNPs are expected to provide a powerful new tool for genetic analysis, facilitating population-based studies, disease-linked gene discovery, and drug design and testing.

SNPs could also help in tests for disease predisposition, identifying at-risk populations and suggesting preventive strategies, as well as identifying the bacterial mechanism of antibiotic resistance.

Molecular Tool's GBA sequencing technology identifies and analyzes variations in the individual bases of DNA. After a gene is discovered, the GBA technology allows the direct measure of the variation in SNPs between different patient samples.

Through an understanding of the sequence variation, drugs may be developed targeting large sub-groups of patients, which reduces the incidence of adverse drug reactions and increases efficacy. An estimated 2 million hospitalizations and 100,000 deaths annually in the U.S. can be attributed to pharmaceutical side effects, which might be avoided if patients were routinely sub-typed prior to treatment.

According to Pfost, the two companies' technologies fit seamlessly. Combining Molecular Tool's open architecture technology with Orchid's microfluidics format will enable development of a variety of automated high-throughput systems, including integration of automated sample preparation, an area of high unmet need, he said.

"The strategic advantages of this platform will be highly leveraged across multiple partners, applications and disease areas," Pfost said. "Everyone's attention has been captured by genomic screening, but translating that to pharmaceutical discoveries has been a bit of a challenge. You invariably have to look at the difference in DNA, and the No. 1 variant is single nucleotide polymorphism."

Pfost said the Molecular Tool acquisition wouldn't be the last. "I think it's important to be in discussions with various companies," he said. "For every 10 you look at, one may make sense." *