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Life Sciences Roundup

Amazon pitches cloud computing for gene research

Xconomy.Com / July 12, 2010

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The future of biology, if Amazon has its way, will be in the cloud.

The Seattle-based online retailer has generated buzz in the past few years with Amazon Web Services, its foray into cloud computing. Customers rent server space on a pay-as-you-go basis and get access to their data at any time via the Internet. It’s supposed to allow small businesses, governments, and anybody else to save cash and hassles by not having to buy and maintain servers.

Biological researchers have not embraced the new model as quickly as their tech brethren, but cloud computing is coming to life sciences, says one of Amazon’s biotech liaisons, Deepak Singh — out of necessity.

Computing challenges have become a “serious blocker’’ to people trying to make sense of the human genome, Singh said. And Amazon has made it a high priority to become the company that stores genomic data in a cheaper and more accessible way. Customers, Singh says, “have started looking at the cloud very seriously as a possible option.’’

Amazon’s rented server model has attracted partners and customers all over the country. The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge is a user, along with Harvard Medical School. Life Technologies, an instrument maker, and Seattle-based Geospiza, a bioinformatics software company, have a partnership to use Amazon’s servers to store genomic data.

And a leading evangelist for cloud computing in genomic research is C. Titus Brown, a computer science and microbiology professor at Michigan State University, who is teaching students how to use Amazon Web Services to store data for their experiments.

Precisely how important this is to Amazon, a company with $24.5 billion in revenue in 2009, is hard to say. Singh would not be specific.

There are still major barriers for Amazon. Much sequencing is done at centralized labs that already have invested in expensive servers. Some labs are generating so much data they aren’t always sure they have enough bandwidth to transmit it all to Amazon’s servers. And the raw data is so precious to a biologist’s career that it can be hard to just send it away to a vendor, rather than have it under lock and key on campus.

LUKE TIMMERMAN

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The Lebanon, N.H., biotech company Adimab has grown the ranks of its Big Pharma collaborators, coveted for their deep pockets.

Adimab has announced research deals with four of the world’s largest drug makers — Merck & Co., Roche, Pfizer, and now Novartis — since June 2009. It has also collaborated with one unnamed firm. Payments from these companies made three-year old Adimab cash flow-positive for the first time during the April-May-June quarter, cofounder and CEO Tillman Gerngross said. He expects the company to be profitable for the year.

Financial terms of the latest deal, with the Swiss drug giant Novartis, are not being disclosed. Adimab will use its technology to discover antibodies that could act against two undisclosed diseases of Novartis’s choosing.

Novartis decided to give Adimab’s technology a try despite the fact that the drug behemoth in 2007 struck a potential $1 billion-plus deal with Germany-based MorphoSys to gain broad access to that biotech’s method for discovering antibody drugs.

Gerngross said Novartis’s willingness to give his firm’s technology a shot provides extra validation of its potential to vastly streamline the process of discovering antibodies.

Adimab doesn’t have any drugs on the market, and doesn’t plan to develop the antibody drugs it discovers. Rather, it has made money collecting research and milestone fees from others.

Big drug companies pay Adimab to use its technology to discover antibodies for them, and then it’s up to those companies to invest in the required preclinical and human studies.

The companies have agreed to pay Adimab royalties on potential sales of drugs discovered with its technology.

Antibody drugs for cancer and other diseases are a fast-growing, $25 billion segment of the pharmaceutical industry, with big sellers like Roche’s rituximab (Rituxan) and trastuzumab (Herceptin).

So Adimab’s potential to expedite a company’s advance into this hot market helped the firm rack up an impressive number of partnerships in about a year — even if Gerngross fell short on his prediction that his company would close two significant partnerships in the first quarter of this year and two more by June.

RYAN MCBRIDE

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Genentech, the Roche unit in South San Francisco, has turned in its application to the Food and Drug Administration to sell a souped-up version of the hit breast cancer drug trastuzumab (Herceptin). The new antibody is attached to a toxin to give it more punch.

The drug, T-DM1, was developed by Genentech with technology from a Waltham company, ImmunoGen.

This report was compiled by the editors of Xconomy, an online news website focused on the business of technology and innovation. For more New England coverage, visit www.Xconomy.com/boston.