DOE Awards $16M In Grants To Build Sequencing Factory

DOE Awards $16M In Grants To Build Sequencing Factory

By Randall Osborne

With its genome sequencing factory due to begin operating this summer, the Joint Genome Institute of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded more than $16 million in grants to universities and industry for research over three years.

The largest grant went to the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, in Cambridge, Mass., which received $10.9 million for its work as part of the DOE's virtual institute, which will integrate research based in three laboratories in Livermore, Calif.; Berkeley, Calif.; and Los Alamos, N.M.

"We have a physical entity for sequencing, in Walnut Creek, Calif.," said David Thomassen, DOE's program coordinator for biological and environmental research programs. "The building is being renovated."

Whitehead will develop an automated system integrating DNA sample preparation, sequencing and data analysis. The system will be modular, allowing for updates of specific steps in the overall sequencing process.

The DOE's institute aims to sequence a "substantial fraction" of the total human genome by 2005, using an automated assembly line, said Thomassen.

"We're not betting on a specific amount," he told BioWorld Today. DOE gets about 26 percent of funding for genome research, with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) given the rest, he said.

In fiscal 1998, the institute expects to sequence 20 million bases of DNA and twice as many in fiscal 1999. Eventually, it will sequence 100 million to 200 million bases per year. Three billion base pairs of DNA form the fundamental composition of human beings.

Another goal is to devise faster, cheaper and more accurate ways of sharing the information.

Immusol The Lone Commercial Recipient

Among the grant recipients is Immusol Inc., of San Diego, the only commercial entity to win one. The company was awarded $800,000 for two years of work defining the functions of genes.

In March, Immusol made its first genomics deal: a collaboration with Pfizer Inc, of New York. Under terms of the agreement, Immusol will use Pfizer's gene target sequence information to design customized ribozymes, which then will be used to evaluate disease function of selected target gene products. (See BioWorld Today, March 12, 1998, p. 1.)

Suzanne Zebedee, vice president of business development for Immusol, said the DOE work is of a different type.

"[The Pfizer collaboration] is for target validation, and this grant is for what I call target acquisition," Zebedee told BioWorld Today.

"What we're starting with is a cell line with a function phenotype you want to knock out, using a ribozyme gene library that, theoretically, could recognize all genes," she said. "If you have a cell with a functional change, you can find out what the sequence is, which can then lead you to the target gene sequence."

Although the project is virtual, the majority of the grant money went for tangible goods.

"The bulk of it was for technology transfer, from the awardee to the Joint Genome Institute," he said. "The smaller [part] was for more basic research, and that's what Immusol was awarded."

Unlike Small Business Innovation Research grants administered by the NIH, the DOE funding is for specific services and products, Thomassen said.

"But Immusol could apply for renewal, as all the other grantees can," he said.

The University of California at Berkeley received a $1.5 million grant, also for research into gene functions. The DOE awarded $1.7 million to the University of Florida, in Gainesville, and $1.3 million to Stanford University, in Stanford, Calif., for the development of new instruments and technologies to boost efficiency and cut costs of DNA sequencing. *