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L.A. Has Potential to Be a Leader on Biotech Industry Cutting Edge

Science: As human genome research spawns commercial opportunities, some envision the region as a 'bioinformatics' center.


Despite its world-class academic talent and role in inventing the Internet, the Los Angeles area economy has been unable to grab much of a piece of the digital revolution of the last 15 years. But recent advances on the biomedical front offer the region another opportunity to leverage its all-star scientific talent in an emerging industry.

Exploration of the human genome is accelerating growth of a specialized business called bioinformatics, which unites microbiology with the power of supercomputers to dissect the most basic components of life. The Los Angeles area already has earned a place in this white-hot field. Discoveries made years ago at Caltech and USC laid the groundwork for the historic mapping of the human genome.

Business-minded scientists in San Diego, the Bay Area and a handful of other biomedical centers have been quicker to commercialize the new technology, but the field is so new and evolving so rapidly that the Los Angeles area, ranked nationally in the top five in biotechnology overall, still has time to assume a leadership role in the increasingly important niche.

"We have the talent and there is a need," said UCLA assistant professor Chris Lee, head of the university's 2-year-old graduate-level bioinformatics program. "We have a combination of skill sets not easily found everywhere."

Bioinformatics uses complex mathematical formulas and computers to analyze vast amounts of biological data. The technology enables scientists to study specific genes and their relation to disease. Using these tools, researchers also are beginning to read genetic instructions for the tens of thousands of human proteins that also can cause illness.

Beyond that, scientists are using bioinformatics to learn the genetic makeup of plants, animals and bacteria.

A 6-month-old Caltech spinoff is working with a chemical company to determine the protein structure of a specific bacteria. Such information could lead to creation of a strain that "eats" chemical waste with gusto, said Bionomix President and Chief Executive Derek Debe, a 27-year-old former graduate student.

Many believe that the technology will lead to drugs designed for specific people based on their genetic makeup. One reason for drug side effects, experts say, is that medications that take aim at harmful proteins also attack similar proteins that aren't causing trouble.

Besides yielding a treasure-trove of data, bioinformatics could be a financial bonanza to small companies (and their university partners) that patent the discoveries. Companies able to leverage their data into drug design stand to reap larger rewards.

In addition to its reservoir of talent, there are other reasons to believe that the Los Angeles area can succeed as a bioinformatics center. Unlike the biopharmaceutical business, the new specialty doesn't require large pools of trained technical support and manufacturing workers, which the Los Angeles area lacks. There are start-ups in the Los Angeles area doing cutting-edge work with high-speed computers and less than a dozen employees.

"You can't put a biotechnology company in San Bernardino," said Pavel Pevzner, a former USC researcher. "You can put a bioinformatics company there."

A proposed $20-million bioscience center in Pasadena is an attempt to jump-start the industry by tapping into resources at Caltech and City of Hope, a research-driven medical center in Duarte. The center, to be located within a proposed 100-acre biomedical zone, would include an incubator for bioinformatics start-ups. The Cal State University center also would be a regional training site for undergraduates and would incubate traditional biotech companies.

But institutions elsewhere also see the potential of bioinformatics, which promises to revolutionize medicine. Virginia's George Mason University and the University of Florida at Gainesville recently established bioinformatics programs with incubators. Growth in the Bay Area is in part fueled by research at UC Berkeley, Stanford University and UC Santa Cruz, which has one of the most respected bioinformatics programs in the nation.

Closer to home, UC San Diego, which has a strong record of producing spinoff companies, has launched a bioinformatics program headed by Pevzner, who worked at USC alongside the co-inventor of the mathematical formula used to decipher the human genome. The Pasadena center hasn't been approved and is at best three years from opening.

The potential payoff of these investments isn't known. Wall Street analysts and biomedical consultants have estimated revenue from bioinformatics in the $2-billion to $7-billion range. Such a business can support only a few large players. That is one reason why pure bioinformatics companies, such as Celera Genomics Corp. of Rockville, Md., are transitioning into drug design from genetic information companies. Celera, the public company that mapped the genome, is developing diagnostics for cancer and other diseases, where the big money is.

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