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Adaptive TCR Seeks to Dominate New Industry in Profiling The Immune System

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of household names in local biotech. As I noted then in the story back in March, Adaptive’s scientific co-founders are a pair of Fred Hutch researchers who are first-time entrepreneurs in their 30s: Harlan Robins, a particle physicist-turned-computational biologist, and Chris Carlson, a geneticist and molecular biologist. Chad Robins, Harlan’s brother, is the business guy with an MBA from the Wharton School. Before joining the startup with his brother, Chad gained experience with investment banking and hedge funds. He tapped his own Rolodex to raise the company’s seed cash, rather than turn to venture capitalists.

Some big-name scientists have shown interest in what this startup company is doing. Arnold Levine of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, and Gerald Nepom, the director of the Benaroya Research Institute in Seattle, have joined the scientific advisory board, while Nobel laureate Andrew Fire of Stanford University has been using the technology for experiments supported by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. The startup’s customer roster includes researchers at Houston, TX-based MD Anderson Cancer Center, Stanford University, Yale University, Harvard University, UCLA, Baylor College of Medicine, and Washington University in St. Louis, Robins says. Craig Weissman, the chief technology officer of Salesforce.com, has joined the Adaptive TCR board of directors.

Researchers today are primarily using the Adaptive TCR service, called immunoSEQ, to learn basic things about how the immune system responds to pathogens. Big Pharma companies might use it to see if experimental vaccines are triggering the specific kind of response they want to see early on, which ought to help separate winners from losers in clinical trials early on. Over time, Adaptive TCR wants to use this immune profiling capability to perform not just services, but to create its own proprietary diagnostic tests, Chad Robins says. It’s clearly a heady time for Adaptive TCR, and a moment to think about making the most of its first-mover advantage.

“They got a head-start, and have a quick and economical approach, to filling a gap in research technology/information,” Nepom says. He adds, though, that it’s still unclear if the data from Adaptive TCR will shed light on revolutionary new biomarkers, “or just a step forward in research knowledge.”

A lot of technical things had to coincide to get Adaptive TCR up and running. There is some intellectual property in the wet-lab assays that the company uses to process biological samples, and in proprietary computer algorithms that make sense of vast datasets on T cell receptors. The actual sequencing of samples is done on the latest DNA sequencing machines from San Diego-based Illumina (which Robins showed me on a recent tour). The sequence data is stored on remote cloud computing servers operated by Amazon Web Services, which researchers can download. Adaptive TCR, from its offices in South Lake Union, has set up an unusually snazzy Web 2.0-style website (at least by biotech standards) which serves as the company’s storefront to its academic and would-be industrial customers.

Behind the scenes, Adaptive TCR has set up work flow logistics so that it can smoothly process more than 400 to 500 samples a week, Robins says. Robins has clearly been studying the habits of some successful consumer-oriented businesses, and trying to incorporate them into … Next Page »

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