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Knome aims to widen appeal of its genomic analysis

October 3, 2011

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There just are not that many rich people who want to do scientifically adventurous things like fly in outer space or get their entire genomes sequenced. Fortunately for Cambridge’s Knome, it has found a way to keep its genomic analysis business alive by doing something more than appealing to the curiosity, or vanity, of the megarich.

Knome, cofounded in 2007 by Harvard genomics ace George Church, made headlines in its early days when it said it sequenced and analyzed the genomes of three wealthy people for the cool sum of $350,000 each. A year later, the price dropped to $100,000, which meant that a few more folks with genetic diseases in their families were able to afford what it took to scrutinize their genomes. But only now that commercially available sequencers can blaze through an entire 6-billion letter human genome for less than $5,000, Knome has been able to branch out its business to appeal to a whole lot more people.

Molecular biologists and biochemists, for starters, are increasingly becoming curious about using the new tools of genomics for their experiments. But they typically do not have the math and statistics background to make much sense of the data. People who are trained in bioinformatics who can help analyze and visualize these massive piles of raw data, as you might imagine, are in short supply and high demand these days. As academics start dreaming up all kinds of questions they can realistically ask through sequencing genomes for $5,000 a person, and Big Pharma companies even start to mull whether to sequence patients in their clinical drug trials, it has created a broader base of interest in the kind of more automated genomic analysis and interpretation that Knome was built to provide.

“We are really working on two fronts now,’’ says Jorge Conde, Knome’s chief executive and cofounder. “We’re trying to make bioinformaticians more efficient, to make it so they can do more with the data. And we are aiming to make the data more accessible to a non-bioinformatician.’’

This, of course, is easier said than done. When you start talking to a biologist, or a physician for that matter, about various ways of looking at genomes, transcriptomes, exomes, and the increased or decreased probabilities of disease that might (or might not) stem from those results, eyes glaze quickly. “It’s a foreign language,’’ Conde says.

Knome is a private company, and does not say much about its finances, but it is showing signs of gaining traction in its fourth year of operations. The company has built up a team of 30 employees in Cambridge, plus another 10 in India. It has recently come out with a version 2.0 of its software. Researchers from Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic, the University of British Columbia, the University of Seoul, have started using the service, among others, Conde says.


Karuna Pharmaceuticals, a start-up incubated at Boston’s PureTech Ventures and led by former Pfizer executive Ed Harrigan, announced it had licensed a group of experimental schizophrenia drugs from Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The compounds are believed to treat schizophrenia symptoms such as memory loss and the inability to experience pleasure or to carry on normal social interactions, which are not currently addressed on the market.

■ Newton health IT start-up Zeo announced it added a mobile app version of its sleep tracking and coaching system. The company hopes the tool, which pushes sleep data gathered from a sensor-laden headband to a user’s mobile interface, can be integrated with other apps focused on improving wellness.

Acetylon Pharmaceuticals, a Boston biotech start-up backed by the holding group of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, started a human trial of one of its cancer drugs that fights the disease by targeting enzymes related to gene expression.

RXi Pharmaceuticals of Worcester announced that it will divide its work on RNA therapeutics from other pursuits, by splitting up into two publicly traded companies. Galena Biopharma, one of the companies, will pursue cancer treatments, while RXi will continue work in RNA interference - molecules that silence disease-causing genes - through developing RXI-109, its drug candidate for treating fibrosis and scarring.

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