Applera Corp., the parent company of Celera Genomics, is embarking on a $75 million, yearlong project to decode the genes of up to 50 people, an effort the company hopes will lead to new products for it to sell.
The goal is to develop diagnostic tests that will allow physicians to choose treatments for individuals based on their genetic makeup, as well as tools for scientists and - ultimately - new medicines. The strategy clarifies how Applera plans to make money from the efforts of Rockville-based Celera, a company best known for sequencing the DNA of five individuals last year in a race to make the world's first map of the human genome.
But competitors already have embarked on similar strategies without sequencing the entire genome, the billions of chemical units present in human chromosomes. Celera's harshest critics called the genome-sequencing effort commercially useless. Other companies instead concentrated on understanding genes, the strings of DNA along the genome that give instructions for creating the body's worker bees - proteins. Many other regions of the genome have no known function or comprise regulatory regions, which are believed to trigger genes to go into action.
Yesterday, Applera Chairman Tony L. White said his company's strategy has, from the beginning, been to use the genome as a foundation for other discoveries. "We have always believed the value of the human genome lies in the interpretation of its content," he said.
Applera, based in Norwalk, Conn., is made up of Celera Genomics Group, which sells subscriptions to online databases about genomes, genes and proteins to drug researchers; Applied Biosystems Group, a Foster City, Calif., maker of tools and chemical kits for scientists; and the newly created Celera Diagnostics unit, an Alameda, Calif.-based joint venture between Celera and Applied Biosystems.
The plan is to have gene-variation discoveries made by Celera shared with its sister companies. Celera Diagnostics would use the information to come up with molecular tests that could, for example, be used to discover disease before symptoms develop or to tailor health care to individuals. Applied Biosystems could use it to create and sell test kits that scientists could use to figure out which genetic variations are at work.
Celera also would make use of the information, perhaps creating an additional database to sell. The company also said it plans to license its discoveries to other companies in the near term, establish agreements with other companies to co-develop treatments in the medium term and develop its own drugs in the long run.
The initial $75 million research and development cost is to be split among the three units. Applera said it plans to offer more financial details of the plan during an earnings conference call scheduled for tomorrow.
Companies such as Genaissance Pharmaceuticals Inc. of New Haven, Conn., and Variagenics Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., already have undertaken research efforts similar to those Celera is beginning, drilling down into the genome to determine what genes and patterns of gene variations correlate with disease. The variations also could reveal why some people are helped by medicines that prove toxic to others.
The genome is made up of four chemicals, represented by the letters A, C, G and T, that repeat in various combinations. Celera already has discovered more than 3 million single-letter variations in the chemical makeup of genomes it previously has put in order. But fewer than 2 percent of those variations, Celera President J. Craig Venter acknowledged yesterday, occur in genes. Instead, they appear in apparently dormant regions of the genome, making them less medically relevant.
The work on which Celera will now embark focuses on patterns of variations among genes and the genome's regulatory regions. Such patterns involve more than a one-letter variation in DNA.