BY KEVIN DAVIES
January 15, 2005 | In August 2004, Catherine Burzik was named president of Applied Biosystems (ABI), succeeding Michael Hunkapiller, one of the pioneers of automated DNA sequencing, who had been with the company for 21 years. Burzik has something of a bio-IT background: Groomed in mathematics and software development, she built the picture archiving and communications system (PACS) franchise at Kodak. Before joining ABI, she ran Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics, a Johnson & Johnson company. Kevin Davies interviewed Burzik following her appearance at the Scientific American "Targeted Medicine" conference in New York in November.
Q: Your counterpart at Celera, Kathy Ordonez, had pretty big shoes to fill. How do you try to follow Mike Hunkapiller?
A: There's a huge amount of depth that Mike left within the company; we'll be forever grateful to him in that regard. He built a scientific team that I think is second to none in the industry, and that team remains. There are hundreds of scientists within ABI, and I'm continuously awed when I debate with them about next-generation sequencing technologies or real-time PCR. So I have huge admiration for the team that Mike built. He, in many ways, got to the point that the team was really strong, and he decided to go off and do some other things.
I believe somewhat in destiny, and in many ways the training that I had for over 20 years at Kodak, and more recently J&J, is good training for ABI. ABI in many ways is approaching the $2-billion level, and so it needs to act and behave and put the business process in place that you'd have at that kind of company. I bring that kind of thinking into the company, and have no intention of changing the innovation framework. I only see an opportunity of complementing that with some business process, hopefully aimed to more rapidly identify R&D opportunities and bring them to the marketplace.
Apple has iTunes, so now ABI has iScience?
"I don't believe that all great things have to be invented by ABI. We have a worldwide reach that would be a powerful thing in partnership with another company, so we're looking at alternatives."
That's very good! It did not come from Steve Jobs! It came with a lot of thought within ABI and the life science industry. Others may call this systems biology — we call it integrated science. There's an opportunity here to bring a number of scientific disciplines together — genomics, proteomics, etc. — along with knowledge about the pharmaceutical industry. Bringing together these disciplines will enable 'targeted medicine' — the ability to utilize the genetic makeup of an individual to predict and monitor disease, and to select appropriate therapies for a specific individual or population. How does protein/gene expression relate to whether a drug is correct for a particular individual? The only way you can do that is to have a very rigorous bioinformatics platform that matches genetic variation with drug response, to have deep sequence information, genetic variation information, and to integrate all this together. So iScience brings together technologies to understand the systems biology of a particular problem, and be able to solve that. How successful is the ABI Web portal for planning and executing experiments?
We've been fortunate to be able to use the data from the Celera Discovery System online platform and data from the entire Applera Genomics Initiative to create a rich bioinformatics database. There are around 400,000 gene-expression assays that you can order on the portal, so any variation in genes, you can order those online, configure them, and have them sent to you. Similarly, if you're doing large-scale SNP genotyping, you can order SNPlex — 48 simultaneous genotypes you can look at in a particular sample.
Rather than have to design the assays manually, it's easier for scientists to order them online. That's why we call it 'myScience.' It's a big idea, it's complex; we have a first-generation version on the market, but quite honestly I'm not satisfied with it, and our customers aren't satisfied with it. They give us an 'A' for effort, but it's not as fast or as intuitively obvious as they would like.
So we're going forward with Deloitte and HP, and we're redoing our portal ... I thought it was important to get professional portal development work, where the content comes from us, but the way the portal is designed will come from HP and Deloitte. It will be a multi-year developmental effort with several phases planned, to make this a Web site where scientists around the world will go to do their experiments.
You dominate the market for DNA sequencing chemistry. What new technologies are you developing?
We think there is still a lot of life left in capillary electrophoresis. Our customers are doing more and more 'resequencing' of specific genes — for example, EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor) mutations and Iressa. Genome centers today and the core labs are doing more and more resequencing. We introduced a set of chemistries called VariantSEQr that enable resequencing of cancer-related genes, and we will have other additional sets of genes ... We have chemistries and software for the genotyping system, and BAC (bacterial artificial chromosome) fingerprinting. We'll also be adding methylation and other applications on our genetic analyzers that will further the understanding of genomics. I also believe that we'll finally get to the point where sequencers will be clinically relevant, certainly in the next five to 10 years.
We have probably the best scientists at sequencing in the world, and obviously we're working on new technologies. But we're also very involved at looking at outside technologies. I don't believe that all great things have to be invented by ABI. We have a worldwide reach that would be a powerful thing in partnership with another company, so we're looking at other alternatives.
How do you see the clinical proteomics marketplace?
Clinical proteomics research is an important area for us, and we have major initiatives under way in the biomarker area. We think biomarkers will play a pivotal role in disease diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment monitoring. To support our endeavor, we recently decided to integrate our MALDI systems with MDS. It puts a critical mass in one spot in R&D.
The other aspect is around chemistries that enable multiplexing through the mass spec. We have a series of chemistries called iTRAQ chemistries where you can do four specimens at once. You can look at a protein from a nondisease tissue, a disease tissue, and tissue treated with two different drugs, and look at the different signatures associated with those proteins. So we think that's very cool technology, as well as tissue imaging — a high-speed laser front end to our QSTAR product line that will enable one to see drugs that have metabolized through tissue, so it's truly an image of drug metabolism.
Are you making progress in the microarray market?
We introduced our whole-genome array system in April 2004. We knew we were going up against Affymetrix, etc., so our strategy is not to go after Big Pharma, because there's a lot of standardization there. We've gone after the basic and clinical researcher, the core labs, people doing home brew — it's a strength of ours to go after that marketplace. Customers need to have demonstrations, be convinced the product works, and we're making progress. There'll be several publications soon that will be very interesting. There's no doubt our system sees more genes, and it sees them with a great degree of sensitivity. The question is: Are those genes biologically relevant? We believe they are.
What else are you excited about?
I'm really excited about real-time PCR — we just got our real-time PCR patent issued. That's a very important milestone. I'm very pleased with the uptake of the new gene-expression systems, the 7300 and 7500 Real-Time PCR Systems, and how rapidly the customers adapt. We just introduced a new series of fast chemistries that take a PCR experiment from two hours down to 35 minutes, so there's real strong chemistry capability in that area.
What was the rationale for ABI's recent reorganization?
We recently tried to look at the structure of the overall organization, and did a significant reorganization. Two areas I'd highlight: a renewed focus on applied markets and the services business. Applied Markets was buried in the old organizational structure. I saw what was going on in forensics: We had a strong forensics platform and, outside the U.S., a huge support of mass spec for food testing, and environment testing (anthrax) from a biosecurity perspective. So it made sense to create a whole division associated with Applied Markets, under one of our very bright people, Mark Stevenson. He's very focused on growing ... the biosecurity market by looking at pathogens for the U.S. government through our collaboration with Tetracore, etc.
On the services side, ABI has almost 200,000 pieces of equipment around the world. Our service was really regionalized, it wasn't integrated, so we built a service business with the opportunity to do integrated science, to bring information from those various platforms together into solutions, so our integrated science strategy will come out of the result of us growing the services into solutions organization.
We're also looking for business partners that can put data management solutions onto that framework; as a result of bringing data from all of our instruments, there's a huge data management opportunity there. We have our own LIMS (laboratory information management system), but we're also looking for potential partners.
PHOTO BY SETH AFFOUMADO