Key challenges to overcome in the genomics revolution are thebiological analysis of the explosive amount of DNA material beinggenerated and the discovery of therapeutic compounds to offsetdisease-causing genetic events.

In the laboratories, robots now carry out some experiments instead ofpeople, but the basic method of mixing materials in test tubes or othertypes of vessels has changed little in the past few decades.

Caliper Technologies Corp.'s Michael Knapp, vice president ofscience and technology, said his Palo Alto, Calif., start-up companywas formed to advance laboratory techniques in step with genomicsand combinatorial chemistry.

The company's technology miniaturizes and automates experiments,such as drug screening and DNA analysis, on microchips the size of adime.

"Lab on a chip" is how the company's experts describe their science.

"The value is in how the technology moves fluids around," explainedWallace Parce, a co-founder of Caliper and vice president ofresearch.

Instead of mixing substances in test tubes, Caliper uses electrokineticforces to create an automated system of microscopic pumps andvalves that control movement of tiny volumes of fluids across a chip.

The chips can screen compound libraries against genomic targets,diagnose diseases, perform separation procedures and conductbioanalysis of DNA material.

The advantages, Parce said, are precision, speed and use of smallerquantities of substances.

For example, on the genomics side, with current tools, a companywould need 10 to 100 microliters of receptor material to conduct oneassay to test potential therapeutic compounds for activity. That muchDNA material costs $1, so to conduct one million assays, which istypical in screening libraries of compounds, would cost $1 million.

Parce said with Caliper's "lab on a chip" only a nanoliter of receptormaterial is required for screening _ reducing the cost to $300 for thesame number of assays.

"The economics is staggering," Parce said, "but so is the throughput."

A pharmaceutical company typically may test 300,000 to 500,000compounds against 20 to 100 targets in one year.

Caliper's technology is designed to screen 500,000 compounds perday against one target.

The company's strategy, Knapp said, is to work with apharmaceutical company in creating a machine to screen the drugmaker's compounds against genomic targets. Caliper, he added, isclose to completing an alliance on that front.

The company also is talking with genomics firms interested in chipsfor testing their DNA discoveries.

Caliper's broader focus, Knapp said, will be in the area of diagnosticsand bioanalytic instruments.

With microchips, he observed, diagnoses can be performed using avariety of technologies, such as immunoassays, DNA probes andhematology.

Caliper was founded in June 1995. Lawrence Bock, a general partnerin San Diego-based Avalon Ventures, is president and CEO. Caliperwas among the last company's formed by Avalon before it closed outits venture capital activities.

In May 1996, privately held Caliper raised $7 million in a first roundof financing.

-- Charles Craig

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.