Sequenta Pockets $13M To Diagnose, Monitor Immune Systems Going Awry

12/8/10Follow @xconomy

The age of the $1,000 genome is said to be fast approaching, and the growing availability of fast, cheap DNA sequencing is already paving the way not just for new avenues of academic research, but also for intriguing new diagnostic startups like San Francisco-based Sequenta.

This company, formerly known as MLC Dx, is announcing today it has secured $13 million in a Series B venture round that included Mohr Davidow Ventures, Index Ventures, and individual investor Jacob Goldfield, the former chief investment officer of Soros Fund Management. Sequenta, which has now raised a total of $15 million, was co-founded by Tom Willis and Malek Fahem. Those two entrepreneurs previously co-founded ParAllele Bioscience, a company that was backed by Mohr Davidow and ultimately sold to Santa Clara, CA-based Affymetrix (NASDAQ: AFFX) for more than $130 million.

The idea at Sequenta is to gather a new kind of information for physicians about whether a patient’s immune system has gone out of whack. While the 3 billion letters of DNA that make up a genome are consistent in almost every cell of the body, the immune system’s B cells and T cells are an exception. In these cells, DNA gets shuffled around in a vast array of combinations, allowing T cells to recognize specific invaders, such as flu viruses, and bacteria, and allowing B cells to generate antibodies against them. Scientists wishing to assess immune response can look at generalized markers of inflammation like C-reactive protein. But until recently, they could never really look at the vast diversity of an individual’s immune system in a specific way that could say how it reacted to infection with a specific bug, or adapted in response to a certain vaccine or therapy.

Doing this kind of immune-system sequencing was impossible just a few years ago, as it would have cost a few million dollars with traditional sequencing to examine immune cell diversity in just a milliliter of blood, Willis says. Now this kind of specific sequencing of immune cells can be done for about $100, making it possible to start a company devoted to using it as tool for diagnosing disease, and for monitoring people over time, he says.

Tom Willis

Tom Willis

“I can see a world, and I can’t tell you the exact time frame, when immune system profiling is a part of routine wellness management,” Willis says. “Once we know more about your immune signature in various health states, we’ll all get it sequenced, and look for early signs of cancer, autoimmunity, infections, and other losses of function.”

Rowan Chapman of Mohr Davidow, who helped seed the company and sits on its board, said: “There are so many different applications in underactive and overactive immune disease. The only tests avail today are really non-specific. I see huge potential.”

Sequenta, which is an amalgam of the terms “sequence” and “consequence,” is still being pretty stealthy about its business strategy. Like many other molecular diagnostic companies, it has plans to set up a centralized lab that processes the samples physicians send in for analysis, and makes money by charging for the service. The central lab will run on next-generation sequencing machines from San Diego-based Illumina, although Willis says he’s open to using other technology platforms over time.

The company, which has 11 employees as of today, plans to use the new cash … Next Page »

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