Skip to content

Firm is latest entrant in tests for genetic data

Stanley N. Lapidus is at it again.

The founder of two Boston-area medical testing companies says he recently completed a $27 million financing round for a new firm he's helped form, called Helicos BioSciences Corp. It will be the latest to enter a field of companies trying to develop tests for genetic data and new ways to study DNA.

Helicos will be based in Cambridge, though for now its five employees are working from the offices of Flagship Ventures, the lead investor in the financing round. The company aims to bring together high-speed chemical analysis and supercomputing reviews to analyze molecules of DNA taken from individuals.

Eventually such tests are expected to revolutionize medicine. A doctor who knows a patient's genetic makeup would also know which drugs would be most effective at treating that patient's diseases.

Other companies working toward similar goals include Agencourt Bioscience Corp. of Beverly; 454 Life Sciences of Branford, Conn., which is majority-owned by CuraGen Corp.; and Britain's Solexa Ltd.

Some refer to this space as high-throughput DNA analysis. It follows in the footsteps of the Human Genome Project, the $3 billion-plus public-private consortium that has nearly finished the job of sequencing the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA.

But its results are only generic, and the technologies it employed cost far too much to be used to diagnose or treat individuals. In theory, specialists imagine that new sequencing technologies would have to approach $1,000 to be useful for an individual patient.

In practice, companies including Helicos are aiming at intermediate steps. Lapidus calls the area "translational research" to flesh out molecular processes and create more practical research techniques.

These will still be hugely valuable for topics like understanding how certain cancer cells operate, Lapidus said, which could aid in drug discovery even if it doesn't lead directly to treatments for individual patients.

"The economic prize is big, the glory prize is big, and the challenge is extraordinarily stimulating," Lapidus said.

Lapidus is Helicos's chief executive. Two companies he founded previously, Exact Sciences Corp. of Marlborough and Cytyc Corp. of Boxborough, are both now publicly traded. Cytyc's products are used for cervical cancer screening; Exact's products are designed for the early detection of colorectal cancer.

Flagship Ventures cofounded Helicos and led the $27 million investment round. According to Flagship, other investors include Atlas Venture of Waltham, MPM Capital of Boston, Versant Ventures of Menlo Park, Calif., and Highland Capital Partners of Lexington.

Helicos's central intellectual property stems from the work of another cofounder, a scientist at the California Institute of Technology, Stephen R. Quake. He is best-known for his work in the field of microfluidics, the management of tiny droplets of fluids on slides under high-powered microscopes. This method could lead to much faster ways to analyze DNA than today's standard method.

In a paper Quake published last spring, "Sequence information can be obtained from single DNA molecules," Quake and others described a complicated system using lasers and microscopic flow channels on a lab slide to isolate up to five base pairs within a strand of DNA.

Flagship's senior managing director Noubar Afeyan, also chairman of Helicos, and Samir Kaul, a Flagship principal, say Helicos is now looking at ways to read several times more base pairs off the DNA strand, using new enzymes, better surface chemistry and detection technologies. That's a more realistic goal than trying to develop technologies to read the entire genome at once, said Tim Harris, Helicos's director of technology.

"My view of the world is you don't solve a problem this broad and complex in one step," he said.

Ross Kerber can be reached at