More than a decade ago, Bob Bean and Tim Hodge met at a Wendy’s near Baptist Memorial Hospital to discuss what it would take to develop a lab for genetically testing mice for use in research.
It wasn’t a likely path for either.
Bean was in his second career as a pharmaceutical salesman after spending 12 years as an Evangelical music minister in Fort Worth, Texas, and Albuquerque, N.M.
Hodge worked for the same pharmaceutical company, the now-defunct Upjohn Co., had a molecular genetics degree from Arkansas State University and had planned to attend medical school.
They began carving out a business plan to develop a lab for automated genetic testing but found funding was hard to come by in Memphis.
“For most people, a defrocked minister of music and a molecular genetics major from Arkansas State who tried to get into medical school and couldn’t, were not the two candidates for venture capital funding,” Bean said. “We had never run a popsicle stand, let alone a business.”
But a venture fund in Aspen, Colo., was willing to take a chance on the concept.
While Hodge has since moved on, Bean is president of Transnetyx today. Founded in 2000, the Cordova-based company received orders from more than 600 organizations with more than 3,000 laboratories last year. Transnetyx also has kiosk centers at 88 universities around the globe. Bean estimates about 75 percent of the company’s clients are in the U.S., 20 percent are in Europe and 5 percent are in Australia.
Mice genotyping is routine for many research studies today, but the field was still in its infancy when Transnetyx was founded, Bean says. In the mid-1990s, an Italian molecular geneticist, Mario Capecchi, figured out how to turn off specific genes in mice. That discovery has allowed researchers to more easily develop lines of mice that replicate disease states found in humans for use in research.
For some rare gene mutations, 64 mouse pups need to be bred before the mutation occurs again. These mice lines can cost $50,000 to $100,000 to develop and require genotyping to determine which mice have specific genes and which ones don’t have the gene for use in research studies. Beans says genotyping takes valuable time away from researchers when they could be working on their studies.
“You are going to have lots of pups, but they just need to know who inherited the gene and who didn’t,” Bean said.
Every day, researchers from around the world clip off 2- to 3-millimeter mouse tails and send them to Transnetyx for automated testing in wellplates. A complex series of automated robots receive the mouse tail clippings and begin testing the tail clippings for specific genes. The results are often available online within less than 24 hours.
“It’s a very simple business,” Bean says. “We are looking for the things that they tell us they want us to look for … the sooner you can get some of these genes in a mouse, the faster it’s going to be able to make it into medicine.”
Transnetyx grew so rapidly that Bean began exploring other uses for the company’s automated genotyping process. At first, processing forensic kits for crime scene labs seemed like a natural fit. Many labs across the nation have a backlog of hundreds of rape kits and other forensic kits.
But after meeting with lab directors across the country, Bean realized many directors didn’t want to outsource the kits – even if meant doing it much cheaper and faster. Many forensic lab directors believed the kits needed to be tested locally.
So Bean settled on branching into the field of pharmacogenomics – which is using modern technology to analyze how a person’s genetic makeup will impact his or her response to certain drugs. That division of the company, Harmonyx Diagnostics, launched in 2010 and still is in its infancy.
Harmonyx began with a genetic test for the anti-clotting drug Plavix, the second-best selling drug in the world. In 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration placed a “black box” alert on the drug that warned the drug has a deadly lack of effect in patients that carry variant CYP2C19 gene. These patients aren’t able to properly metabolize the drug and need to be prescribed other drugs that are more effective.
Doctors can collect a DNA sample from patients with a buccal swab test on the inside of a patient’s cheek and mail the samples to Harmonyx for testing. The results are received within 24 hours and can be used to determine whether Plavix will be effective or not.
When the FDA issued a Plavix “black box” warning, Bean thought the service would take off like wildfire.
“It’s hard sledding in this market,” he said. “When the drug has been on the market nine years and the science has only come about in the last few years … it takes time to convince the doctors. They will get there, but they aren’t there yet.”
The same type of genetic testing also can be used for other classes of drugs like pain medications, antidepressants, ADHD drugs and statins – which are in development at Harmonyx now.
While growth has been slower on the Harmonyx side of the company, Bean is confident the division has great potential as the field of pharmacogenomics develops. The company recently launched a new relationship with a lab in Costa Rica; its first international project.
“I love what I’m doing because the issues are just so crazy everyday,” he said. “It could be a molecular problem at a lab in La Jolla (Calif.) or meeting with the Austrian government to find out what initiatives are going on over there.”
Bean lost his mother to pancreatic cancer and is encouraged that a new line of mice has shown traditional chemotherapy treatment is not effective in pancreatic cancer patients.
“Hopefully, we’ll see major developments in the next five years that can better treat pancreatic cancer,” he said. “Our primary purpose here is not just to make money, but to make a difference in the lives of patients.”