DUBLIN, Ireland - Very few organizations are currently using genomics effectively. Most are using the technology for rapid isolation of genes that have already been discovered.

“All that does is to make your life a little easier. You could have cloned it anyway,“ said Steven Briggs, who has been appointed president of the Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute (NADI), the first component of a US$600 million, 10-year investment program in agricultural genomics announced recently by Novartis AG, of Basel, Switzerland.

Briggs, who was director of agronomic traits at Des Moines, Iowa-based Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. prior to joining Novartis, declined to reveal precisely how his institute's approach will differ.

Its focus will be to match genes with biological traits, primarily through the development and manipulation of gene and protein databases. The institute will also exploit tools for functional and structural analysis of proteins and for protein engineering.

It will study weeds, insects, nematodes, fungi, bacteria and viruses, as well as plants. “The idea is to build up as complete a picture of the plant and its pests as we can,“ he said.

NADI, which will employ 180 scientists, represents an investment of US$250 million and will be based in San Diego. Novartis plans to announce further investments in the fall. Briggs said the company is in discussions on opening two additional centers, in the U.S. and Europe.

The San Diego operation will develop an upstream “data infrastructure“ that will form the basis of biological discovery efforts in the other two centers and in other Novartis locations, including its Agribusiness Biotech Research facility at Research Triangle Park, N.C.

“We're going to California for technology, but we're going elsewhere for people with the biological knowledge to exploit that technology,“ Briggs said.

R&D Effort Dubbed One Of World's Largest

The work at San Diego will fuel development of both transgenic and conventional products in the crop protection, seeds and animal health areas. The use of gene expression profiling will increase the efficiency of conventional product development, as it will reduce dependency on field trials to generate data.

“We're now able to put database examination at the beginning of a research project,“ Briggs said.

For example, institute scientists will build databases containing the gene expression profiles of organisms exposed to hundreds of different chemicals. Molecules with similar or identical modes of action will induce similar or identical patterns of gene expression in target organisms. This kind of information can be used in mode-of-action studies on existing chemicals where that information is not already known, and as a rapid-screening mechanism for new candidates.

The whole undertaking is one of the world's “largest single research endeavors dedicated to agricultural genomics research and development,“ according to Novartis. It also will feed into product development efforts in nutrition and pharmaceuticals.

“We're integrating across the life sciences for product development,“ said Briggs. This will enable the company to develop products that no single business could do alone, he added.

For example, agricultural genomics personnel are collaborating with nutritionists on development of functional foods with better digestibility or increased nutritional content for the baby food, hospital and geriatric markets. Other activities include the development of food and animal feed products with reduced allergenicity and reduced toxicity. Briggs said he expects to see considerable progress in these areas over the next year.

Novartis examined three locations, all in the U.S., before deciding on San Diego. Europe, said Briggs, still has a long way to go before it can match California in terms of labor and technological infrastructure to support product development companies.

The other two contenders for the investment were the San Francisco Bay Area and North Carolina.

“We settled on San Diego for a couple of reasons,“ Briggs said. Chief among these were San Diego's popularity as a place to relocate and its proximity to Novartis' pharmaceutical genomics institute in La Jolla, Calif., which it established earlier this year.

Despite the recent spate of investment activity in agribusiness, particularly by St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., as far as Briggs is concerned the field is still wide open.

“I would say that much less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the useful genes have been described,“ he said. He observed less than one hundred genes with commercial potential have been patented.

“We might be overstating the case to say the gene race has begun, let alone to say that it's over,“ said Briggs. *