Billing itself as a next-generation genomics company, privately heldDigital Gene Technologies Inc. has launched a business it said goesbeyond gene discovery by random sequencing and chromosomalmapping to identification of genes and their expression patterns inspecific cells and tissues throughout the body.

The La Jolla, Calif.-based company was started in 1995 withtechnology developed by Gregor Sutcliffe, of Scripps ResearchInstitute in La Jolla. Sutcliffe and his brother Robert Sutcliffe, who ispresident and CEO of Digital, co-founded the firm. Robert Sutcliffeis a lawyer and former member of the Brobeck, Phleger & Harrisonlaw firm in Los Angeles.

Paul Freiman, former Syntex Corp. chairman and CEO, is chairmanof Digital. Freiman left Syntex, of Palo Alto, Calif., in February 1995when it was acquired by Roche Holdings Ltd., of Basel, Switzerland.He serves on the boards of several companies.

Digital completed its first major financing Tuesday, raising $8million from a group of private investors. Scripps, which sold rightsto technology developed by Gregor Sutcliffe, remains a shareholder.

Services the company initially expects to provide involve assayingtissue samples for gene expression patterns and using bioinformaticsto create data bases that allow comparison of new genetic data withknown information.

Whether examining a normal tissue, one that is diseased or one thathas been treated with drugs, Robert Sutcliffe said the importantaspect of Digital's technology is "letting the tissue speak for itself. Itallows us to see all the genes that are active."

What Digital is doing, Gregor Sutcliffe said, is identifying all theexpressed gene sequences, or mRNA molecules, unleashed in cells togenerate the proteins that determine cellular activities. Thetechnology, using nucleotide sequences near the end of mRNA tofind the molecules, identifies them whether they were previouslydiscovered or not. The unknown expressed sequences, in turn, canlead to new gene discoveries.

In a single cell, mRNA molecules can number 300,000 and of thattotal thousands may come from one gene and only one from anothergene. Understanding cell function involves knowing the abundance ofgene products, and the gene producing one protein could be asimportant as the gene producing thousands.

Gregor Sutcliffe said in trying to unravel a polygenic disease such asobesity, the technology could be used to analyze activation of certaingene products within obese genotypes. A second analysis couldexamine gene expression patterns in areas such as fat tissue and thecentral nervous system's hypothalamus region where feeding andsatiety are regulated.

"With our technology it's possible to see every mRNA and determineconcentration," Gregor Sutcliffe said, adding that knowingexpression patterns is a next step in understanding genes after theyare discovered.

"We've anticipated that in three to four years all the genes will beknown," he said. "Our technology is the way to ask what's happeningwith those genes."

The current financing, Robert Sutcliffe said, will be used to automatethe technology initially enabling Digital to process as many as 50assays simultaneously with complete gene expression patterns in 30to 45 days. n

-- Charles Craig

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