Blue Heron Strives to Replace Gene-Making Grunt Work with Custom Manufacturing

6/18/08Follow @xconomy

It used to take weeks of labor for a drug company to make a batch of genes for an experiment. Those days are fading, as Blue Heron Biotechnology of Bothell, WA, and an emerging group of competitors have found ways to pump out industrial quantities of custom-manufactured genes, cheaper and faster than before.

The market for custom-ordered building blocks of life has grown from virtually zero in Blue Heron’s founding days of 1999 to an estimated $60 million this year and growing, said John Mulligan, the company’s founder, chairman and chief scientific officer. The price per base pair, or chemical unit of DNA, has plummeted to about a tenth of what it was then, meaning it is now cheaper for drug companies to order manufactured genes than assign the task of making them to young scientists, said Joe Piper, managing director of Integra Ventures in Seattle, and a director of Blue Heron.

The trend has made it possible for large drugmakers to run all sorts of industrial-scale experiments that weren’t feasible before, Mulligan said. Demand has surged to the point where Blue Heron counts 19 of the world’s 20 largest pharmaceutical companies as customers. Unwieldy genes with as many as 50,000 chemical units of DNA (more than most any biologist needs) can now be custom made, error-free. After surviving some manufacturing snags a couple years ago, Blue Heron can now deliver an average order within two to four weeks.

“It’s a real business now,” Piper said. “Early on, you had to wonder if there was demand.”

Besides Blue Heron, Germany-based GeneArt, DNA2.0 of Menlo Park, CA, and at least until recently, Codon Devices of Cambridge, MA, have emerged as leaders among at least 40 companies offering the service, Mulligan said. The companies offer a way for large drugmakers (think Merck and Pfizer, although no one’s saying for sure) to buy large quantities of genes with slight variations, so they can run vast experiments to see which of their drug candidates ought to work best.

The demand has surged so much that the manufacturers have struggled to keep up. About two years ago, … Next Page »

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  • http://amanwithaphd.wordpress.com/ Richard Gayle

    Being one of the few molecular biologists who has synthesized oligonucleotide strands on sintered-glass funnels (a single day would result in a strand 14 nucleotides long and a hangover from the chemicals), I have been awed by the ability to create gene segments 50-100,000 nucleotides long. All faster and cheaper than I was able to do it.

    This is paradigm-shifting in its implications. It can change the questions we can ask. Look at the rise of synthetic biology, for example. Bringing more engineering rigor to biotechnology and biopharma may help overcome the 90% failure rate for new drugs.

    Something has to.