Devgen uses IBM technology for drug targets discovery in roundworm to fight human disease

Ghent 07 June 2001Belgium-based biotech company Devgen NV has deployed IBM technology to conduct genetic research on a microscopic roundworm, the C. elegans. This nearly transparent roundworm has intestines, muscles, and a complex nervous system that are startlingly similar to humans in chemical structure. The research will help identify new drug targets and leads for human diseases such as diabetes, depression, obesity and many others, as well as insecticide discovery.

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Devgen's new system includes a cluster of IBM eServer systems, namely the 2pSeries model H80s and 20 xSeries model 330s, running Linux and AIX, which is used to analyse genome information. Devgen's core technology involves the use of C. elegans to identify validated drug targets and in vivo active compounds. By studying this transparent worm, Devgen researchers can better understand gene interactions in humans that trigger chemical reactions in cells and cause diseases, and narrow the search for medical treatments.

"Given the increasing availability of completely sequenced genomes, Devgen has designed a powerful system which enables rapid deciphering of huge volumes of data and the uncovering of genetic patterns that hold the key to important new drugs", stated Dr. Wim Van Criekinge, Devgen's director of bioinformatics and genomics. "We are doubling our capacity every ten months, so scalability is an important factor. In addition, we need an information technology infrastructure which supports both UNIX and Linux. IBM is the logical choice as a strategic technology partner."

The system includes a unique, proprietary hardware platform which is uncoupled and scalable in both storage and crunching capacity. Devgen completed this high performance system with software solutions that realise the full potential of the hardware and present the results interactively to the biologist.

"This bioinformatics architecture enables Devgen to store, filter, and analyse large sequence databases in-house", stated Dr. Robin Brown, chief scientific officer of Devgen. "Combined analysis of the entire publicly available sequence information and Devgen's proprietary genomic information provides Devgen with the world-class ability to mine sequence information for drug discovery. This capability is used for in-house research programmes and for corporate research partners."

The new system was configured and implemented by IBM's business partner Computers & Communications (C&C). "This deployment brings together IBM's information technology leadership and C&C's expertise in implementing Linux and UNIX solutions", stated Dr. Anne- Marie Derouault, director of business development, IBM Life Sciences. "Our complementary strengths are providing a technology base that Devgen can use now and in the future to advance and commercialise scientific research that identifies drug targets and candidate drugs effective in treating disease."

Devgen, founded in 1997, is a privately owned biotechnology company that concentrates on the speedy discovery of novel, validated target and in vivo active compounds for the pharmaceutical and agri-chemical industries. Devgen's lead is based on the industrialisation of the model organism C. elegans, a microscopic worm, that shows similar cell types and biochemical pathways to humans and offers unique benefits over traditional animal models or biochemical in vitro approaches to drug research. The company has raised EUR 37 million in different rounds and has a staff of over 80 people.

The microscopic C. elegans constitutes an ideal laboratory organism for drug discovery. Most of the worm's genes are also found in humans. The worm's DNA sequences are known in full and are, moreover, very much shorter than those of humans, e.g. 100 million letters for the worm, compared to 3 billion in the human, which greatly simplifies the search for their functions in the genome. By scanning human sequences, and by searching through known sections of model organisms including mice, C. elegans, and Drosophila, Devgen is investigating the functions of various combinations of letters. In this way, it is possible to narrow down the search for medical treatments and defective genes.


Leslie Versweyveld

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