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UB, life-sciences firms partner on gene sequencing

The University at Buffalo is teaming up with a major biotechnology corporation and a life-sciences startup that grew out of research conducted at Roswell Park Cancer Institute to boost genetics-based clinical research on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Life Technologies – which has a media manufacturing facility on Grand Island – is providing UB and Empire Genomics with advanced genome-sequencing equipment.

Empire Genomics will install the equipment in lab space in its building on the edge of the medical campus, while UB has installed the technology in its New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences on the campus.

The sequencing technology will help UB researchers and Empire Genomics employees develop new diagnostic tests that could – eventually – lead to drugs targeted to individual patients, and the project is touted as a boon to efforts to build a life-sciences industry in Buffalo.

“What we’re doing is using the latest and most innovative technology, which is DNA sequencing, to accelerate the conversion of research taking place at the university into clinical assays, or into the hands of physicians and patients,” Anthony Johnson, the president and CEO of Empire Genomics, said Wednesday.

Johnson previously worked at the local Life Technologies complex, then owned by Invitrogen, leaving in 2006 to take his current post. The Life Technologies facility makes cell-culture media and reagents, powders and liquids scientists use as nutrients to grow cells.

Empire Genomics, which has offices and a clinical laboratory on Michigan Avenue, uses genetic tools to develop more precise, non-invasive tests for cancer and hard-to-diagnose forms of Down syndrome and markers for autism.

The seven-year-old company, which grew out of research conducted by Norma J. Nowak at Roswell Park, works with groups developing pharmaceutical drugs to determine the best treatment for each patient, an approach to health care known as personalized medicine.

Officials from UB, Life Technologies and Empire Genomics had discussed putting together a proposal with the aim of winning a piece of the “Buffalo Billion” economic-development pledge, Johnson said.

They decided to move ahead with this smaller-scale partnership instead, because it could be put together faster, but the project has the potential to grow.

Under the partnership, Life Technologies is providing Empire Genomics and the UB center with cutting-edge gene-sequencing equipment that will enable the two institutions to conduct work that is certified under the federal Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments standards.

The Ion Torrent semiconductor-based sequencing technology will be installed at Empire Genomics, and three employees will be trained in its use. UB’s equipment was installed in its bioinformatics center.

“We are very pleased that after carefully looking at all of the alternatives, the University at Buffalo and Empire Genetics decided that Ion semiconductor sequencing was the best platform to help them reach their goal of advancing genetics-based clinical research and ultimately driving growth in the life sciences industry in Western New York,” said Mark Stevenson, president and chief operating officer at Life Technologies, who misstated Empire Genomics’ name in a statement.

UB used grant funding to purchase the sequencing equipment for use by its researchers and the Empire Genomics employees, and the total cost of both setups will be “north of half a million dollars,” Marnie LaVigne, UB’s associate vice president of economic development, told The Buffalo News.

The goal is to accelerate the development of tests that would be used to predict whether someone will develop a condition or disease, diagnose the condition in a patient or help guide doctors toward the best course of treatment. And UB already is discussing bringing other companies into this partnership, LaVigne said.

“The way personalized medicine is going now, you need to have all these different kinds of expertise at the table,” she said.