Mercator Genetics Inc. has kept a low profile over the past two yearswhile refining its technologies for the identification of disease-causing genes.

The privately held Menlo Park, Calif., company's Nov. 2 hiring of apresident and CEO, pharmaceutical veteran K. Michael Forrest,shows that it is nearing the point of bringing its work to the publicdomain.

One of the company's lead programs, in the monogenic area, is toidentify the gene that causes hereditary hemochromatosis. "We havemade good progress in developing our technical paradigm bylooking for that disease gene," Forrest said, adding that Mercatorexpects that it or a competitor will have the gene responsible forhemochromatosis isolated within a year.

In the multiple disease gene category, Mercator is furthest along infamilial Alzheimer's disease.

"We have kept our technology close to the vest while we holdpreliminary collaboration discussions," Forrest told BioWorld,adding that Mercator has been talking with "major pharmaceuticalcompanies in United States, Europe and Japan."

"It's our intention to isolate specific disease genes, then look at themost useful applications, such as diagnostics, protein replacementproducts and small-molecule therapeutics," he said.Mercator was founded in the fall of 1992 with seed financing fromSan Francisco-based Robertson, Stephens & Co. Kathy Behrens, aRobertson, Stephens managing director, served as Mercator's actingpresident until Forrest was brought on.

"We started looking for a permanent CEO nine or 10 months ago,"Behrens said. "It was a planned process." The idea was to findsomeone with Forrest's experience in marketing, deal-making,strategic planning _ and someone with a background, and fund-raising capabilities, in both the pharmaceutical and biotechnologyindustries.

Forrest has been in the industry for 26 years. Most recently he waspresident and CEO of Transkaryotic Therapies Inc., a gene therapycompany in Cambridge, Mass. Before that he held managementpositions at Pfizer Inc. and American Cyanamid Corp.

Mercator was founded by David Cox and Richard Myers, who co-direct the Human Genome Center at Stanford University and areprofessors in the Department of Genetics at the university's Schoolof Medicine; and Dennis Drayna, Mercator's director of research, aformer Genentech Inc. researcher who mapped the gene responsiblefor causing Werner Syndrome.

In June, Mercator completed its second round of financing.Investors, in addition to Robertson, Stephens, were InterwestPartners of Menlo Park and Oak Investment Partners of Westport,Conn.

Both Forrest and Behrens said Mercator's approach to geneidentification is quicker and more cost-effective than others in thefield. Three techniques in the area of positional cloning are used bythe company.

One area encompasses a concept called "identity by descent," whichinvolves inheriting a small segment of chromosomes that have beenpassed down many generations from a single founder, rather thanthrough standard genetic linkage analysis using families..

A second part of the formula is Mercator's proprietary method forscanning large portions of the human genome without the need forsequencing. Mercator has a means of looking at regions ofchromosomes where people with a particular disease sharesequences. "This is a screening methodology that doesn't require alevel of resolution of individual sequence analysis," Behrens said. "Itallows you to look at larger regions consisting of tens of thousandsof base pairs at a time."

Once a region is narrowed, the company's third technique comes in.Mercator uses a "highly efficient technique for rapidly sequencingthe region around the gene," Behrens said. "Sequencing is then usedto identify within that region the exact mutations responsible fordisease." n

-- Jim Shrine

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