Raising hopes

Helicos enters collaboration to sequence cancer-associated genes

Jeffrey Bouley
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Helicos BioSciences recently announced a research collaboration with California-based cancer institution City of Hope focused on cancer molecular diagnostics that will see Helicos' True Single Molecule Sequencing (tSMS) technology used to examine known cancer-associated gene variants and the potential discovery of new mutations within those genes. But this is more than a mere contract win, says Steve Lombardi, president and COO of Helicos.

"In-house, we've looked at candidate region sequencing, a hot area of biological research these days, and we've been doing model systems around oncogene panels as sort of a proof-of-concept of what you can do with sequencing whole genes," Lombardi says.

"City of Hope, which is a leading Southern California treatment center for cancer, is one of the leaders in applying P53 genetics and genomics to clinical research in oncology. So it was a perfect sort of target for us to showcase the data we've been building up. They were very interested in what they were seeing from us and wanted to team up, and I think this collaboration will really start to define the utility of what we have been working on."

Helicos' proprietary tSMS technology directly sequences single molecules of DNA or RNA, which the company says offers "unparalleled accuracy, simplicity and scale in genomic experimentation." With the ability to analyze billions of single molecules simultaneously, tSMS technology can directly measure the large sample numbers required to assess the frequency of gene variants within a population of individuals or within a tumor, Lombardi says.

"Our potential to personalize the treatment of cancer will be directly dependent on our ability to understand the genetic variation among individual patients as well as the genetic heterogeneity of their tumor genomes," says Dr. Steve Sommer, director of the Department of Molecular Genetics and the Department of Molecular Diagnosis at City of Hope. "We expect that Helicos' tSMS technology will allow for coverage that has the power to see beneath the surface and into the depths of the genome."

What is also exciting, Lombardi says, is that City of Hope had been using competitive next-generation sequencers and told Helicos that while those sequencers work well, they weren't providing the information that would allow City of Hope researchers to truly understand the biology at the level they wanted. "They really see the value in stepping up the data-to-knowledge transition and that is really good news for us," he says.

"While common variants are important in the landscape of oncology, the true picture can only be revealed with a combination of common, as well as rare variants," says Dr. Patrice Milos, CSO and vice president of Helicos.

Helicos has only recently started up a formal marketing program, so City of Hope is an important win, Lombardi notes. Helicos' 2008 commercial goal, he adds, is to identify the 30 or 40 early adopters that will buy into his company's technology and help define the utility of the technology for the wider marketplace.

Jeffrey Bouley

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