A new method of extracting information from DNA

GOOD GENES: Barrett Bready, CEO of NABsys, says that his startup’s approach to looking at DNA is different and more comprehensive than other current methods. / PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
GOOD GENES: Barrett Bready, CEO of NABsys, says that his startup’s approach to looking at DNA is different and more comprehensive than other current methods. / PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY

The genetic basis of the most deadly diseases in the world aren’t well-understood or easily treated. But a small group of scientists in Providence’s nascent Knowledge District are developing a way to fully understand and treat diseases such as cancer.
Providence-based startup NABsys Inc.’s proprietary technology takes an entirely different approach to looking at DNA than what is done today and extracts far more information that other methods can, said Dr. Barrett Bready, CEO and co-founder of NABsys and Providence Business News’ 2011 Innovator of the Year.
Scientists currently sequence DNA optically by illuminating it and labeling the units that make up a person’s genetic code (DNA bases) to read them. Making the DNA “light up” is expensive and it doesn’t provide enough genetic information to differentiate healthy cells from unhealthy cells. For that reason, treatments such as chemotherapy kill both healthy and unhealthy cells, making patients extremely ill.
The inability to differentiate DNA of systemic diseases and viruses from healthy human cells is the reason that systemic diseases such as cancer and HIV have not been defeated, Bready said.
“Historically, we have been successful in treating infectious diseases because the genome on the bacterium is very different from a human genome. So, scientists know how to kill bacteria and not harm human cells,” Bready said. “But with systemic diseases such as cancer, the cells aren’t so different from healthy cells and the treatments available today can’t distinguish between the two.”
Scientists know that the differences between the DNA in cancer cells and the DNA in healthy human cells can be targeted to kill cancer cells without destroying healthy cells, but existing technologies aren’t able to pinpoint those differences.
But NABsys’ technology can.
The technical explanation of what NABsys’ platform does is it builds solid state, electrically addressable nanopore arrays that sequence DNA without amplification or labeling by combining nanopore sequencing with sequencing-by-hybridization.
In layman’s terms, NABsys has figured out how to make DNA flow through silicon chips to deliver DNA sequencing electronically. With that, scientists can obtain detailed information about the DNA of individual cells and use that information to differentiate between healthy cells and unhealthy cells. “This technology delivers a lot of information and it will get science and medicine to the point that they are as confident treating systemic diseases as they are in treating infectious diseases,” Bready said.
NABsys’ Hybridization-Assisted Nanopore Sequencing (HANS) platform will also decrease the cost of whole-genome sequencing to under $1,000 per patient, allowing for mainstream implementation of “personalized medicine.”
Like NABsys, there are a number of independent research firms and academic labs studying ways to advance DNA sequencing and lower the cost of collecting information from genomes. The DNA-sequencing market is near $2 billion and growing rapidly and the molecular diagnostics market is worth approximately $5 billion per year, according to Bready.
Though it is a competitive space, NABsys’ technology stands out because it provides the type of information that other technologies cannot.
“The NABsys sequencing platform is capable of getting information from DNA that no existing technology can get,” he said. “This will allow scientists and physicians to answer questions that cannot be answered by any other technology.”
The NABsys team also holds world records with respect to the types of information it can get from DNA and is the only company in the world to demonstrate the ability to obtain DNA-sequencing information from single DNA molecules using standard semiconductor fabrication techniques.
In 2007, two NABsys scientists received two of the eight “Revolutionary Genome Sequencing Technologies – The $1,000 Genome” awards from the National Human Genome Research Institute. NABsys was the only company (as opposed to academic labs) to receive an award.
Those accolades provide the type of validation NABsys needs in order to compete and grow in the DNA sequencing and molecular-diagnostics markets. The company has raised more than $21 million in venture funds since 2009. Ten million dollars of that funding came from a round of Series C Preferred Stock financing led by Stata Venture Partners on September 14. Stata also let Series B funding. The company’s Series A investor was Point Judith Capital and the earliest investor in NABsys was Slater Technology Fund.
NABsys’ research-and-development facility is located at 60 Clifford St. in Providence in a converted copy-business building and the rapidly growing company plans to take over space on the third floor of the building next door.
As a venture-backed company, NABsys could be acquired by a large company in its market or it could do a public offering at some point. Bready did not offer any insight into either path, saying the company is still focused on developing its technology.
Development of NABsys’ platform requires expertise in a number of disciplines, so the 34-person team consists of biologists, physicists, mathematicians, chemists and engineers. Most of the company’s scientists hold doctorate degrees and many of them hail from or serve as faculty in Ivy League schools and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The nanobiotechnology company was founded in 2004 by Brown physics professor Sean Ling.
Bready, who earned both undergraduate and medical degrees from Brown University, was appointed CEO in 2005. He is also an adjunct assistant professor of biotechnology at Brown University, co-chairs BioGroup, Rhode Island’s biotechnology-industry organization and serves on the board of directors of the Brown Medical Alumni Association.
Other members of the NABsys team include Ray Stata, founder of the semiconductor company Analog Devices and Dr. Leroy Hood, who joined the company’s board of directors in 2010. Hood co-developed the four basic tools of molecular biology – the automated DNA sequencer, the automated DNA synthesizer, the automated protein sequencer and the automated protein synthesizer.
Hood was involved in founding Amgen Inc., one of the largest biotechnology company in the world. &#8226

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