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Selling DNA Data

by William Wells

Incyte doesn't need to make drugs. It already makes millions of dollars selling a bunch of As, Cs, Gs and Ts.

Human cells are almost ridiculously tiny and efficient. Every one of them has an entire genetic instruction set - three billion As, Cs, Gs and Ts - packed into a nucleus one hundredth of a millimeter across. And a few cents worth of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus will keep millions of cells happy in a dish, reproducing themselves and their DNA data.

Incyte Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (Palo Alto, Calif.) also stores DNA data, but in a way that is somewhat less compact and far more likely to impress a computer geek. Ground-zero for Incyte is a highly air-conditioned room filled with scores of black, towering supercomputers worth up to a million dollars each.

Nine of the ten largest pharmaceutical companies in the world each pay Incyte ~$5 million per year to look at the data on those computers. The money has brought an expanding workforce - from 160 to 675 employees in the last two and a half years - and a frantic effort to keep generating more and more information. "We're maybe a year away from going bankrupt if we don't pursue new technologies at any one point," says Tod Klingler, Director of Research Bioinformatics at Incyte.

The manpower and computer power is needed to tame an ever-growing mountain of DNA sequence information. "We now have 24 organisms completely sequenced we have their entire genetic message written down," says Temple Smith of Boston University. "This information allows us to get information about one organism and use that to understand another."


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