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Life Sciences Roundup

S.F. firm says it has genetic keys to cheaper fuel

Xconomy.Com / August 2, 2010

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LS9 is on a quest to make renewable fuel at $50 a barrel.

The South San Francisco, Calif., company says it has discovered novel genes from strains of cyanobacteria that are the basis for a one-step process to convert sugars into alkanes: the primary component of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

The discovery was disclosed online in Science magazine.

The paper is an important step for LS9, which has gotten its share of attention because of its ambitious science, prominent founders, big-money backers, and the enormous problem it seeks to solve.

The company was founded in 2005 by the University of California Berkeley’s Jay Keasling, Chris Somerville of Energy Biosciences Institute, and Harvard University’s George Church.

LS9 has raised more than $45 million from Flagship Ventures, Khosla Ventures, and Lightspeed Ventures.

The article in Science was the first to show in detail how a handful of people at the company identified the genes in publicly available databases. Competitors like Cambridge-based Joule Biotechnologies and several academic labs have also been on the hunt for these genes, but LS9 said it was confident enough to lay out its scientific methods in a top journal because the patent applications have been filed and it believes it owns the process.

“It’s a major achievement,’’ said Andreas Schirmer, associate director of metabolic engineering at LS9 and the study’s lead author.

These are still very early days in the renewable-fuel business, and LS9 has only performed small-scale runs with this process. A much more important test will come later this year, as it seeks to reproduce the same process on an industrial scale.

And this is far from the end of the road. LS9 is working to better characterize and optimize the bacterial enzymes that are produced by the genes to create a more efficient process.

Still, scientists are bound to raise plenty of questions.

One of the peer reviewers of the paper asked the company to further characterize one of the two key enzymes, an aldehyde decarbonylase, which had not been identified before. The scientist wanted to know more about how this enzyme performs this task, in concert with other metabolites and precursors in the biological pathway. It’s not just an academic question, because better understanding of the molecular environment could lead to further modifications of the process. -- LUKE TIMMERMAN

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Roopom Banerjee, chief executive of RainDance Technologies, a tool maker for genomic research, hears the criticism of genomics.

“There’s been a lot of talk recently about how productive has the Human Genome Project really been in terms of delivering on the promise of personalized medicine,’’ he said.

RainDance is helping scientists conquer part of this major question in disease research:

Now that we can map our DNA quickly and cheaply, how do we use these vast stockpiles of genomic data to improve health?

The company bridges part of this gap by giving researchers tools to rapidly perform experiments on specific genes, helping them figure out how those genes affect a variety of diseases. This could expedite the development of treatments and diagnostics customized for individuals, based on their genetic makeup.

The Lexington company launched its first commercial product — a system that can conduct thousands of DNA experiments every second, contained in ultra-tiny fluid droplets — in April 2009. It has found an audience for the system, called RDT 1000, at major research hubs such as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Rockefeller University, as well as at big drug companies like Paris-based Sanofi-Aventis.

RainDance’s micro-droplet technology is helping researchers do targeted genetic sequencing, which involves studying specific genes to better understand specific illnesses. It’s also making these studies, which amplify specified genes using a tried-and-true technology known as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, faster and cheaper.

“In the space that a customer would traditionally do one or 96 samples of PCR, we do between one and two million,’’ Banerjee said, “and we do it for about one-10th of the cost.’’

Founded in 2004, RainDance has been one of the stars of the research-tools industry, in part because of its scientific pedigree.

Jonathan Rothberg, cofounder and chairman, is a key figure in genomics.

He founded and invented the technology behind the DNA sequencing system provider 454, which the Swiss health care products giant Roche bought in 2007 for more than $150 million.

RainDance also has a trio of Nobel laureates — Jean-Marie Lehn, Aaron Klug, and Richard Roberts — as advisers.

RainDance doesn’t disclose how much money it has raised, but Banerjee said it’s tens of millions of dollars.

Banerjee, appointed in February, is the latest lead player. It was a personnel move that surprised some; Banerjee, who said he spent the first half of his career in research and the other in finance, came to his current job without the typical operational experience. But he spent the last nine or 10 months of his previous job as director of health care investment banking at Boston-based Leerink Swann, working as a strategic adviser to RainDance, he said.

“Having taken a number of companies public and having sold a number of companies in this sector,’’ Banerjee said, “I think the board felt that I’d be able to craft a longer-term vision.’’

His Wall Street and industry connections from his Leerink days could pay dividends for RainDance, particularly in an initial public offering or a merger deal. Yet for now, the CEO said, his goal is to build the 70-person firm into a large company. -- RYAN MCBRIDE

* * *

Hospital software maker Picis, of Wakefield, said it is being acquired by Ingenix, an Eden Prairie, Minn.-based health care intelligence and analytics firm.

The companies did not disclose financials details of the transaction, but Ingenix said it will maintain Picis’ locations in Wakefield and throughout the United States and Europe.

This report was compiled by the editors of Xconomy, an online news website focused on the business of technology and innovation. For more New England coverage, visit www.Xconomy.com/boston.