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Early Detection Key to Preserving Eyesight

Early Detection Key to Preserving Eyesight

More than 3 million Americans age 40 and older suffer from glaucoma – the leading cause of preventable blindness. Nearly half do not know they have the disease, because it causes no early symptoms. Call the University Eye Institute's Dr. Nick Holdeman at 713-743-1886 or Dr. Kim Lambreghts at 713-743-1975 to learn more.

Lisa Merkl

Potential Shown by Sale of UH Biotech Spin-OffStrength in Genetic Research Example of University of Houston’s Ability to Solve Challenges of 21st Century

December 11, 2008 - Houston - In a move that demonstrates the commercial appeal of research coming out of the University of Houston, a local company created by six of its professors was sold to a global conglomerate in the disease-research and drug-discovery industries.  

VisiGen Biotechnologies Inc., a biotechnology company created by UH researchers working on a new process that will be used to sequence individual human genomes, was acquired for $20 million from Invitrogen Corp., which recently merged with Applied Biosystems to form Life Technologies (NASDAQ: LIFE).  Acquired as a wholly owned subsidiary, VisiGen will continue to operate under the same name, with Life Technologies offering its strength as a global biotechnology tools company that accelerates such scientific exploration as personalized medicine, regenerative science and molecular diagnostics.  

"This is a move that illustrates the commercial appeal of the research being done at the University of Houston," said John Bear, dean of UH's College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.  "Milestones such as this demonstrate how our scientists are impacting society, as well as helping to generate a stronger economy."  

This is one of the largest acquisitions of a UH spin-off company in the university's history.  Holding an equity share in VisiGen, UH will receive nearly half a million dollars from the initial installment of the deal.  

"To have something like this get its start at UH is remarkable," Bear said.  "In addition to the earliest experiments with this DNA sequencing technology being done on the UH campus before VisiGen moved to its own facilities, a collateral benefit of this spin-off to our university is that it provided a place for the training and employment of our graduates, with about half of VisiGen's employees being UH alumni."  

VisiGen became one of Houston's leading biomolecular nanotechnology companies, undertaking research that is leading to the development of new technology for direct molecular sensing to sequence an entire genome - the genetic code in a person's DNA - in less than 24 hours at a reasonable cost.  This and other developing technologies coming out of VisiGen hold promise for personalizing medicine, so that people can avoid risks to which they are particularly susceptible - such as diet-linked diseases and adverse reactions to some medications - and make choices likely to best promote their own health.  For example, recent dramatic advances in the genomic study of cancer could be applied to individual patients' treatments by sequencing their particular cancer cells, allowing the best treatment to be used first.  

The cost of the first human genome was nearly $3 billion, mostly due to the cost of a tremendous amount of technology development.  The cost of sequencing a human genome has been falling rapidly since then, hitting a record-low price point of $60,000 in reagent costs with Applied Biosystems' SOLiD technology.  Dramatically lowering the costs of whole genome sequencing will enable researchers to sequence genomes of potentially thousands of human subjects involved in studies to identify genes that contribute to specific, yet complex, diseases.  The long-term goal is to cut the whole-genome sequencing cost to below $1,000, providing for applications in routine medical care and allowing doctors to tailor diagnoses, treatments and preventative measures to an individual's unique genetic profile.  

The UH team at VisiGen achieved proof of concept, with this technology guided by a solid principle and success in the lab.  The merger will provide the catalyst needed to bring it to market through the development of critical technologies made possible with the new resources available to its researchers.  

VisiGen President and CEO Susan Hardin, a former biology and biochemistry professor at UH, will continue with VisiGen as research director.  While their association with the company has ended, the five remaining UH researchers, who are credited with numerous patents resulting from VisiGen discoveries, will continue working on the development of technologies that will spur new discoveries, additional patents and possibly new spin-off companies.  

Those remaining researchers at UH are James Briggs, associate professor of biology and biochemistry, chemical engineering and chemistry; Xiaolian Gao, professor of biology and biochemistry and professor of chemistry; Michael Rea, professor of biology and biochemistry; Shiao-Chun (David) Tu, John and Rebecca Moores Professor of biology and biochemistry and professor of chemistry; and Richard Willson, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and biology and biochemistry.  

"This team exemplifies how top-tier success requires interdisciplinary collaborations," said Donald L. Birx, vice chancellor for research for the UH System and vice president for research for UH.  "With researchers from four different specialties working together to share their respective areas of expertise, this is a prime example of what it takes to solve the challenges of the 21st century and propel the university's projects toward commercialization."  

About the University of Houston
The University of Houston, Texas' premier metropolitan research and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate, civic and governmental entities.  UH, the most diverse research university in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and service with more than 36,000 students.

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