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

6/18/08Follow @xconomy

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Blue Heron’s orders more than doubled on a monthly basis, Piper said. That led to some struggles to keep up with demand, which have since been resolved, Mulligan said.

Growth, and growing pains, aren’t just happening at Blue Heron. More recently, Codon Devices was hit with a spike in demand that it couldn’t handle from September 2007 to February 2008, says Mulligan, whose company received some customer referrals as a result. (Codon said last week it is switching its strategy to concentrate more on synthetic biology, constructing new biological products potentially for uses like cleaning up oil spills.)

GeneArt, the German competitor, has done well enough to go public in Germany and hire 190 employees. Thanks in part to a big contract signed with the U.S. National Institutes of Health, based in Bethesda, MD, GeneArt said its sales surged 61 percent in the first quarter. It expects 2008 sales of $16.5 million to $18 million Euros ($25.6 million to $28 million at current exchange rates).

The better/faster/cheaper evolution of custom gene manufacturing opens the door to making all sorts of biological organisms that don’t exist now, hence the term “synthetic biology.” J. Craig Venter, the human genomics pioneer, has talked publicly about his desire to someday synthesize entirely new organisms that might be able to clean up environmental pollutants or become renewable energy sources.

At least for today, it’s more likely that what a drug company would want from gene manufacturer like Blue Heron is many copies of genes with slight variations that would enable massively parallel experiments that could help explain, for instance, why some patients respond to a drug while others don’t. If scientists can know that ahead of time, their success rate for developing new medicines would go way up.

That’s a critical need in the pharmaceutical industry, where only 1 out of 10 drugs that enters clinical trials ever survives to become a marketed product.

“We’re seeing people tackle projects in new ways with the industrialization of molecular biology,” Mulligan said. “People are tackling research in a more rational, compelling way.”

For the sake of everyone who wants new therapies, especially patients and investors, let’s hope the industrialization of molecular biology will help drugmakers raise their batting average.

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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.