Start-up biotechnology company Sequana Therapeutics willidentify and map baboon genes associated with osteoporosisunder a collaborative agreement with Southwest Foundationfor Biomedical Research.

The financial terms of the collaboration were not disclosed.

The three-year agreement, announced Monday, is the secondfor Sequana since the company's formation in June. The firstagreement was with The Jackson Laboratory of Bar Harbor,Maine, for mapping gene mutations associated with mouseobesity. Sequana has plans to work on genetic maps for threeto five additional diseases.

Southwest Foundation has one of the world's largest babooncolonies, totaling 3,000 baboons, of which 2,000 are pedigreed.Henry McGill, scientific director of Southwest Foundation,explained that the research institute became interested infemale baboons as a model for human osteoporosis whenresearchers autopsying the baboons noticed that their boneswere soft. Until then there had been no good model forosteoporosis in humans; the only model was a rat withsurgically induced menopause.

McGill said baboons go through menopause at about 15 years ofage, and 30 percent of them have sufficient bone softening tocause serious problems, "the same percentage as occurs inhumans."

Researchers determined that bone density is heritable, and theinstitute then got together with Sequana and worked out aproject to find the gene or genes that control bone density.Since the baboon genome is 95 percent similar to the humangenome, Southwest Foundation expects that once the genes arelocated and mapped in baboons, the corresponding genes canbe found and mapped in humans.

Under the agreement, Southwest will isolate DNA samples anddiscover DNA polymorphisms to identify gene markers.Sequana will then test the markers to find linkages to thegenes that cause osteoporosis.

This is "a novel kind of industry-academic partnership," McGillstated, because it begins at the basic level of research.Southwest Foundation is working on several other mappingprojects with other research institutes, such as the Universityof Texas Health Science Center, but this is the first collaborationwith a private company for mapping genes. Most of themapping projects are funded by the National Institutes ofHealth.

Of Southwest Foundation's annual budget of $20 million, McGillsaid $10 million comes from NIH grants and $5 million fromresearch contracts.

Jay Lichter, Sequana's manager of business strategy, saidosteoporosis is a new area in gene mapping. He explained thatthe technology developed through the genome project,particularly microsatellite markers, enables researchers to lookat complex diseases such as osteoporosis.

Unlike Gaucher's disease, which involves a single gene,osteoporosis is polygenic (associated with multiple genes).

In addition to the baboon research, Sequana also plans toconduct parallel research in humans. Lichter said the humanresearch will likely begin in six to 12 months and will involvecollecting blood samples from 1,000 pairs of sisters withosteoporosis. He said it would be difficult to do gene mappingusing just humans since it is difficult to track two generationsof humans given the late onset of the disease. It is also possibleto control the diet and environment of baboons.

Sequana expects that location and mapping of osteoporosisgenes will lead to identification of genes associated with suchconditions as cardiovascular disease and hypertension, whichthe company said appear to have genetic components inbaboons. Lichter said the similarity of DNA between baboonsand humans is "greater than 99 percent."

-- Brenda Sandburg News Editor

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