By Kevin Davies
December 15, 2003 | Newly formed company XenneX is striving to carve out a business where many bigger names have failed -- selling genomic information on the double helix to the pharma and biotech industry.
XenneX was founded to commercialize the GeneCards encyclopedia, a popular human gene database originally developed in 1995 by two postdocs in Doron Lancet’s group at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. Since its formation last summer, the company has signed deals with two big pharmas -- Novartis and Aventis -- and several other biotechs, including the Dutch company Organon. The U.S.-based founder of XenneX is Adam Kaplan, a young Israeli entrepreneur who says he enjoys exposing Israeli technology to a wider audience.
Arguably the first genome database of its kind, GeneCards is akin to a Rolodex of the human genome, providing a wealth of searchable information on any human gene, including sequence, map location, and disease association. With more than 30 mirror sites around the globe, GeneCards boasts more than 47,000 entries, with information on each gene automatically garnered from some 40 public and private databases (see “Source Code”). The information is maintained and upgraded by a staff of 10 at the Weizmann Institute, headed by computer scientist Marilyn Safran, who helped develop instant messaging technology at Ubique Ltd.
In addition to collating third-party data, Lancet’s group is adding its own gene-expression data. “GeneNote is an ambitious in-house project,” Lancet says, “testing practically all [human] genes for expression in 12 major healthy tissues” using the Affymetrix platform. These data will be complemented by SAGE (serial analysis of gene expression) data generated by the National Cancer Institute, along with other data on expression patterns in disease tissues.
Pay for Privilege
“Even though some pharmaceutical companies have tried to develop similar tools, their scientists continue to like and use GeneCards,” Safran says. Only now, they will have to pay for that privilege. Although academic users still have free use of the GeneCards Web site, Kaplan says, “in order to access and use GeneCards, commercial entities will need to enter into a license agreement with Xennex.”
Fees for commercial clients range from five-user licenses to Big Pharma organizations, with license revenue helping to sustain future research and maintenance of GeneCards. “This is not a new product; it’s been out there for seven years,” Kaplan says. “A Who’s Who of pharma and biotech have been using GeneCards. It’s our job to turn them into commercial customers.”
Customer number one is Novartis, which signed a worldwide corporate license within just a couple of months of the product’s release. Kaplan hopes that the majority of big pharmas will sign up as clients in 2004.
Safran plays down comparisons to bioinformatics companies such as DoubleTwist, which was the original distributor of GeneCards before it went out of business in 2002. Rather, she says, “a good comparison would be to GeneBio, which successfully markets the Swiss-Prot database for a reasonable fee, and in turn supports the research of the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, which maintains and enhances that product.”
XenneX offers a hosted solution for GeneCards, with secure, anonymized access so that database staffers cannot identify which genes have piqued the interest of specific companies. Alternatively, clients can install it behind their own firewall, integrating it with other databases if desired.
Customers are being assured that a significant portion of the profits will be plowed back into research. For more information, see www.xennexinc.com.
Sidebar: Source Code
GeneCards automatically compiles information from dozens of databases, including:
Atlas of Genetics and Cytogenetics in Oncology and Haematology
Ensembl: software system providing annotation on eukaryotic genomes, including human genome sequence
Entrez SNP: NCBI information on single nucleotide polymorphisms
FlyBase: a database of the Drosophila genome
Genatlas: a catalog of genes, markers, and phenotypes
GenBank: NIH database of all publicly available DNA sequences
Gene Ontology (GO): dynamic controlled vocabulary applied to all organisms
GeneAnnot: annotation of Affymetrix microarray data produced at the Weizmann Institute
GeneLynx: a portal to hyperlinks for each human gene
GeneNote: normal tissue expression database from the Weizmann Institute
GeneTests: clinical resource relating genetic testing to diagnosis and genetic counseling of inherited disorders
HUGE (A Database of Human Unidentified Gene-Encoded Large Proteins)
HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee: central clearinghouse for assigning gene names
InterPro: database of protein families, domains, and functional sites
LocusLink: NCBI query interface to curated sequence and descriptive information about genetic loci
OMIM (Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man): a catalog of human genes and genetic disorders
PubMed: NLM's portal to MEDLINE
Swiss-Prot: information about proteins (e.g., sequence, cellular functions)
The Genome Database (GDB): stores information about genes and other genomic features
The Human Gene Mutation Database (HGMD): information about disease-causing mutations
The Mouse Genome Database (MGD): comprehensive information on the experimental genetics of the laboratory mouse
The Tumor Gene Database: targets for cancer-causing mutations
UCSC Golden Path: human draft genome assembly
UniGene: experimental system for partitioning GenBank sequences
WormBase: the genome and biology of Caenorhabditis elegans