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Rewriting Life

G-Commerce

The latest commercial Web offering: genetic data.

Concerned about being left out of the race to patent the human genetic code? No problem. Just fire up your Web browser, take out your Visa card and head over to www.GeneSolutions.com. The Web site sells gene information for as little as 10 cents per base (the chemical unit of DNA).

Launched in September by Hyseq, a Sunnyvale, Calif., biotech firm, GeneSolutions represents the marriage of two hot technology trends-e-commerce and genome research. According to Hyseq CEO Lewis Gruber, his company had accumulated a vast warehouse of gene data but wanted to focus its efforts on developing a few promising drugs. Gruber says Hyseq decided to throw open its doors and let researchers “purchase the genes on a point-and-click basis.”

The move is part of a familiar sounding e-commerce chain of events. Although Hyseq still hadn’t sold a dime’s worth of DNA-sequence information through the portal as TR went to press, plenty of other companies are also scrambling to stake a claim in gene commerce. Recent entries include Australia’s eBioinformatics and Pangea Systems of Oakland, Calif., which was scheduled to launch a portal called DoubleTwist.com last month.

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Pangea’s main business is selling the “bioinformatics” hardware and software that pharmaceutical firms use to mine public and private gene databases for the clues they need to create new drugs. But these costly and sophisticated tools are outside the reach of most scientists, says John Couch, Pangea’s CEO-and so the company decided to broaden its market by taking its business online. With DoubleTwist’s easy-to-use interface, biologists can enter a gene’s DNA code and get back a state-of-the-art analysis. “You need some real specific expertise to get these answers right now,” says Couch. “The notion of our site is to get the power of bioinformatics into the hands of [ordinary] researchers.” Pangea looks to make money by charging fees to heavy users and corporations, as well as by marketing products such as chemical reagents online.

DoubleTwist’s software relies on gene data residing on public domain servers, such as those maintained by the National Institutes of Health. But biotech companies also plan to start giving away bits and pieces of proprietary data on the portals. Posting a teaser on the Internet is “an effective way to get a sample of what you do into the hands of many thousands of researchers,” says Peter Meldrum, CEO of Myriad Genetics in Salt Lake City. Myriad has made a free database of protein information (see past issue: “The Next Genome Project,” TR May/June 1998) available both on its own Web site and through Pangea’s DoubleTwist.com.

In the future, the gene-commerce sites could become trading posts for patents as well as data. In fact, that’s just the expanded business that Hyseq’s GeneSolutions is hoping to get into. As Gruber explains it, every drug company and university is amassing patents on genes, most of which they don’t use but which may be preventing others from investing in research that could lead to life-saving medicines. Gruber figures one way to rationalize the marketplace is to let scientists browse for genes and trade intellectual property online. “E-commerce lets information exchange hands and industry develop in a way that’s impossible if information and patent rights are balkanized,” says Gruber.

Some biologists are skeptical of the commercial portals, while others worry that health-conscious consumers who are already doing their own health research online might start dialing up information on their DNA. Yale University bioinformaticist Mark Gerstein says: “If you want to connect the public to their genetic information, that’s better done through a doctor than a Web site.”

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