HAMBURG, Germany - Interactiva Biotechnologie GmbH, a genomics company that bills itself as a virtual laboratory, has entered an exclusive agreement with Swedish research centers covering the analysis of single nucleotide polymorphisms.

Interactiva, of Ulm, Germany, was founded three years ago by Flavio Ortigao, a bioinformatics specialist at the University of Ulm. Ortigao had the idea of creating a company based on the vast opportunities of the Internet and supplies of custom-made bio-organic molecules such as oligonucleotides or oligopeptides.

“To our customers, we serve as a virtual laboratory, where they cannot only just order molecules, but find partners for all sorts of questions,“ Ortigao, now CEO of the company, told BioWorld International.

Via Interactiva's homepage, customers online type in the composition of the oligonucleotides or oligopeptides they want. Synthesis starts with a click of the mouse. Customers can follow-up synthesis, purification and characterization of their probe on the screen, just as if they were sitting right in front of the synthesizer.

With more than 500 orders a week, a computer overlooks operating rates, calculates capacities and directs the synthesis to cooperating production sites at the universities of Ulm and Lund, in Sweden. Products usually are delivered within 24 hours in Germany and 48 hours in Europe.

“The Web-based connection to our robots is only one aspect,“ Ortigao said. “Our aim is to establish long-lasting relations to the customers. So in addition, we provide access to databases and, more important, to a unique knowledge base.“

This knowledge base is a network of specialists all over the world who work on a contract basis paid by the day. It is not fixed and is formed anew for each project.

“We are not only able to provide protocols, suggest primers and probes and search for homologous sequences within a short time, but we can also work on very special questions,“ Ortigao said. “We enter into a cooperation with our customer then. All of our products emerged that way and in some cases we have become investors instead of just being suppliers.“

One of these cooperations led to the development of an “intelligent“ plaster to speed wound-healing; another, to the development of a biochip.

Chips Target Better Beer Production

The “XNA on Gold“ chip can be used with any biological sensing element that can be linked with biotin. “It can be loaded with oligonucleotides, peptides, lectins and carbohydrates, even in a mixture,“ Ortigao said. “It is compatible with most imaging-based detection systems - fluorescence, chemiluminescence, radiometric analysis and, in the future, perhaps with mass-based detection systems as well. So the chip can combine genomics, proteonomics and glyconomics to identify subtle differences in complex biological systems.“

Currently, the chip is used in a cooperation with the German genomics company Gatc GmbH, of Konstanz, and the equipment engineering company Stratec GmbH, of Stuttgart, to build a system to monitor yeasts and fermentation in beer production.

In addition, Interactiva is developing a device for medical diagnosis based on the chip technology.

One of the most promising cooperations was signed last week as an exclusive agreement. Together with the Swedish Genome Research Center and Uppsala University, in Sweden, Interactiva is trying to become an important player in an exciting new genomics investigation method.

Currently, expressed sequence tags (ESTs) are the basis for a fast and important gene sequencing approach. “But how complete will such a transcription map really be?“ asked Anthony Brookes, a genome researcher at Uppsala University. “We have come to the conclusion that many genes are being missed by the EST initiative due to a very low expression level.“

SNPs May Be More Accurate

Instead, he focuses on single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). SNPs are alterations occurring in a single base of a gene. Some of these mutations seem to be unimportant, but many are not. They account for important genetic differences between individuals, including variations in drug or xenobiotics metabolism and disease risks. Moreover, they can be used as markers by researchers scanning an entire genome for significant mutations.

Companies are eager to exploit the SNP approach. Last year, Abbott Laboratories, of Abbott Park, Ill., entered a US$42.5 million agreement with Genset SA, of Paris, to search for SNPs associated with efficacy and side effects of drugs.

Brookes will apply SNP analysis to about 1,000 genes, mainly involved in neurodegeneration, oxidative phosphorylation, apoptosis and diabetes.

To speed up SNP detection, Interactiva has developed a new screening method called “dynamic allele specific hybridization“ based on its biochip. Full complementary DNA sequences, chromosome location, expression patterns and function will be established and stored in a database.

The intragenic sequence polymorphisms of normal individuals will be open to the research community and accessible via the Internet. All other information, including disease association and assay format suggestions, will be available after registration and payment.

Interactiva, for which Europe and South America constitute the main market, now employs a staff of 25. The company reached break-even in 1997 and expects a turnover of DM4 million this year. Subsidiaries are established in France, Sweden and the U.K. *