Md. firm broadens deal on cancer test Year-old pact extended with Calif. developer of key computer chip

Biotechnology

October 17, 1997|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

Oncormed, Inc., a Gaithersburg genetic testing service company, said yesterday that it has broadened an agreement with Affymetrix Inc. to co-develop a rapid computerized DNA test for diagnosing and analyzing genetic mutations linked to breast and ovarian cancers.

L. Robert Johnston Jr., Oncormed's chief financial officer, said the companies hope to develop tests that could be marketed for the prognosis of confirmed cases of cancer and for screening people for two key mutations strongly linked to breast and ovarian cancer.

Such "susceptibility" testing, however, has been met with strong resistance because of fears that employers, insurance carriers and others with access to medical records might discriminate against people whose tests show they have a strong probability of developing cancer.

But Johnston said the company, which markets genetic testing services to health care providers, believes that privacy issues surrounding genetic testing will eventually be resolved, opening up the market.

"It's a very good thing for Oncormed to have this type of collaboration," said Elizabeth Silverman, a New York genomics analyst with Robertson, Stevens & Co.

"It's my feeling that DNA testing for diseases is the wave of the future. Oncormed wants to be a player in this field and Affymetrix is certainly at the forefront of DNA array technology," Silverman said.

Affymetrix, which lost $12.2 million on $12 million in revenue last year, recently has been finding growing acceptance among drug companies for its breakthrough GeneChip technology, which some have dubbed a "laboratory on a chip."

Affymetrix's technology encodes a vast array of genetic "sequence," or code, combinations on a microchip.

The Santa Clara, Calif., company markets the technology as a novel way to analyze and manage complex genetic information for use in diagnosing and treating diseases.

The agreement announced yesterday is an expansion of a collaboration the two biotechnology companies formed last October.

The original collaboration between Oncormed and Affymetrix focused on the development of a GeneChip system to rapidly detect and analyze mutations in a gene known as p53. Mutations in that gene are widely believed by scientists to be linked to cancer.

Oncormed said yesterday it expects to begin marketing a GeneChip test for p53 through its clinical testing service.

Under the expanded agreement, the companies will co-develop genetic probes to detect and analyze two types of genetic mutations linked to breast and ovarian cancer.

The genes Oncormed and Affymetrix will target for the new testing system are known as BRCA1 and BRCA2.

About 10 percent of all breast cancer is believed to be inherited. Mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are believed to be responsible for 45 percent of all inherited breast cancer cases and 35 percent of all ovarian cancers.

The gene probes will be used with Affymetrix's GeneChip technology, which can rapidly identify genes and genetic mutations associated with the disease.

Ultimately, the companies said, they hope to establish that monitoring gene "expression," or activity, is useful in deciding the proper course of treatment for breast and ovarian cancers.

Under the new agreement, Affymetrix and Oncormed will contribute technology and financing to develop a GeneChip probe array and software for identifying BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations.

An estimated 1.7 million people in the United States are being treated for breast cancer.

Approximately 182,000 people, mostly women, are diagnosed annually with breast cancer in the United States and 23,000 are diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Pub Date: 10/17/97

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