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Genomic express

Company provides consultancy services and genetic sequencing

EDUARDO CESARSamples of biological material for analysisEDUARDO CESAR

The production line of Helixxa, a company located in Campinas, in São Paulo, starts from a simple idea that is unprecedented in Brazil; providing genomic services. It is a reflection of the genomic era in which knowledge of genes is becoming more widely used, so much so that in 10 years the cost of analyzing a genome has become, on average, 1 million times cheaper. The starting point of the company’s business plan is based on a single, but diversified raw material: any type of genetic material is accepted. The outcome is genomic results and the interpretation of such, which are able to serve both public and private projects in various areas of knowledge. In a timetable that began nearly three years ago the most complicated aspect, admit the partners, was collecting the R$4 million invested in the idea so far. “We relied on family and friends,” says João Bosco Pesquero, a professor, in the Department of Biophysics, at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), and one of the partners in Helixxa. “We still have no resources from investors or venture capital funds. This may be the next step,” says the entrepreneur-researcher.

Even with the money invested and a more or less definite idea in mind to develop, they had to buy suitable equipment. The tools used for bringing together the two extremes of the business will be decisive. As in practice the partners intended making the company a sophisticated service provider in the area of genomics, they also decided to choose state of the art machines for sequencing genes. The 454 sequencer from Roche was one of the chosen platforms. The equipment is considered among the fastest and most modern in the world for reading genes. As machines do not work on their own, the company also hired professionals from the area to work with the samples that were arriving. “We really have to have a good analysis delivery time as well as a competitive price,” says Pesquero. As a researcher, he knows only too well the bureaucracy there is for importing the reagents used in research. “But we have also structured ourselves to deliver a complete package, from the material that is sent us by researchers or companies. Another advantage we have is that we also offer consultancy services, so we can sit down with the researcher and discuss the most appropriate solutions for the projects.”

The 454 operating at Helixxa is one of five in use in Brazil. It is the only equipment installed in a private laboratory. The other four institutions operating a machine of this type are the Evandro Chagas Institute, in Pará, the National Laboratory of Scientific Computing (LNCC), in Rio de Janeiro, the Catholic University of Brasilia and the Institute of Chemistry, at the University of São Paulo. “Both the installation and the startup of the machine occurred in May this year,” says director, Mario de Oliveira Jr., another partner in the company. “By November 12, seventeen successful sequencings had been carried out on the equipment. Each costs R$50,000, on average,” says Oliveira Junior.

Bovine genome
In its first six months Helixxa has attended private international clients, like Roche itself, which validated the results generated by the machine it had sold in Brazil. It also performed various services for pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, a company that, according to Pesquero, has chosen Helixxa to be its animal genomics laboratory in South America. For Embrapa, another client, Helixxa has analyzed thousands of cattle markers. A project under development at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) opened up another business opportunity for Helixxa: that of selling its services directly to the researcher in a scientific institution, a model that already exists in countries like the United States and various regions in Europe. University researchers interested in studying the genomics of microorganisms in the intestinal flora collected samples of human feces and sent them to the laboratory at Helixxa. One of the objectives of the research is to understand how the constitution of flora behaves after the application of certain drugs. Because of this, having quick results of the genome of viruses, bacteria and fungi in the digestive system before and after the application of drugs to the patient, is interesting to answer the scientific questions posed by the laboratory which produces the drug. Pesquero says that in this case, the company delivered all the results to the researcher in a week, at a cost of R$54,000. “This price can vary depending on the objective and size of the project. If the researcher has the wherewithal to import reagents and wants to use this possibility, this cost would drop to $30,000,” says Oliveira Junior. “This option exists so that researchers from universities and research centers in the country can make it cheaper and thus facilitate use of our services.”

Competitive process
Pesquero says the idea for Helixxa appeared “to revolutionize” research in Brazil. “There are many problems which stop research from moving forward.” Researchers, says the businessperson, have not been educated and trained to be “equipment jockeys.” That means they should not spend their time learning how to operate the machine, but asking important scientific questions within the work they are doing. According to Pesquero, their intention, in addition to the profit that is welcome in any kind of private initiative, is to “accelerate research processes in the country, within the area of genomics, making our science more competitive internationally, in addition to offering career opportunities for new graduates, showing that there is life outside the university in this area.” While today Helixxa is sequencing and quantifying the genome, in the future even more in-depth techniques in the area, such as protein analysis, may also be available in the company. The owners know that the next stages are going to depend on consolidation of the current stage.