DUBLIN, Ireland — The genetics department at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) has a new home, the Smurfit Institute of Genetics.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern is due to open the IEP12 million center, which has 6,000 square metres of laboratory space, next week. TCD's genetics department currently has 75 research staffers and postgraduate students. The new center will cater to these and several other molecular genetics research groups based at the college, said department head David McConnell.

In addition, Identigen Ltd., a campus company established by faculty staff, will be based there during its start-up phase.

The institute received capital funding from the London-based Wellcome Trust, two Irish industrialists, Michael Smurfit and Martin Naughton, an unnamed U.S. philanthropist and the Irish government, which contributed IEP4.8 million of the total cost.

Gene Therapies Target Eye Diseases

The Wellcome Trust grant includes IEP1 million for the construction of a barrier facility with a capacity for up to 6,000 laboratory mice. This will support TCD's research program on the molecular genetics of eye disease.

Scientists Peter Humphries, Jane Farrar, and Paul Kenna head up this group, which is developing a gene therapy approach for treatment of dominant and recessive forms of retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary condition characterized by progressive deterioration of the retina.

The group has generated a knockout mouse model of the recessive form of the disease in collaboration with Mario Capecchi of the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, Humphries told BioWorld International. It plans to employ both lentivirus and adenoassociated virus vectors developed in association with the Bill Hauswirth and Lung Ji Chan, at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, and naked DNA transformation for introducing functional DNA to the retinae of knockout mice.

The group also is developing two animal models of the dominant form of the disease, said Humphries. One involves a targeted amino acid substitution of the rhodopsin gene. The other involves a similar disruption of the gene for peripherin, a structural component of peripheral cells.

Humphries' group has demonstrated suppression of these mutations in vitro using hammerhead ribozymes, which specifically cleave mRNA sequences that encode the malfunctioning protein.

Identigen, which was set up in late 1996, is based on 10 years' worth of basic research on bovine genetics. The company was established by Dan Bradley, of TCD's genetics department, and Paddy Cunningham, a former director of the Animal Production and Health Division of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, in Rome. Cunningham holds a personal chair in animal genetics at TCD.

Identigen has developed a DNA-based meat tracing system based on microsatellite markers developed for cattle identification. This enables retailers to trace a particular cut of meat back to the individual animal from which it originated, said CEO Ciaran Meghen. The company has developed a high-throughput screening system that can match a sample taken from the supermarket shelf with samples obtained and profiled at the time of slaughter.

Its first contract, with meat processing company Irish Food Processors, of Ardee, and the retail chain Superquinn, of Dublin, involves sampling 30,000 carcasses per year, Meghen said.

Identigen's current facility has a capacity for around 500,000 profiles, he added. The company aims to target the Irish and U.K. markets initially. It currently is negotiating a global licensing agreement with a European firm that would introduce the technology to other markets.

Identigen also provides a genetic fingerprinting service for pedigree cattle breeders in Ireland. "That's a fairly low-key business, but it pays the bills," said Meghen. In addition, the company has research programs on breeding thoroughbred horses and salmon.