Alabama's HudsonAlpha Institute says genes, DNA to lead biotechnology innovation

News Outlet:

The Birmingham News

By Michael Tomberlin

ORANGE BEACH, Alabama — Alabama’s HudsonAlpha Institute is among those leading a wave of biotechnology innovation that could rival the information technology wave of the past several decades, an institute official said Tuesday.

Just as sequences of ones and zeros were the basis of a wave of computer and information technology innovation, it’s genes and DNA that will form the foundation of the coming wave, said O’Neal Smitherman, executive vice president of HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville.

"This is our opportunity to be in on the next new wave of knowledge revolution for humanity," Smitherman told developers at the Economic Development Association of Alabama summer conference at the Perdido Beach Resort.

It’s already happening at HudsonAlpha. Built just three years ago, the biotechnology research and commercialization center is home to 20 associated companies, including 16 resident, for-profit biotechnology companies, Smitherman said. He said two companies have been bought out by larger ones and a third one has been bought out twice.

HudsonAlpha even has a patent pending for a prostate cancer screening process using human genome mapping.

Smitherman said HudsonAlpha scientists have isolated 87 markers on prostate cancer genes that help differentiate the prostate cancer that requires immediate treatment from the approximately 80 percent of prostate cancer cases that may not need treatment.

Smitherman said that is exactly what makes the genome sequencing research being done at HudsonAlpha so important: Future treatment for disease can be tailored to the form of the disease a person has with the medicines known to target that form. It’s already being done in breast cancer patients and a company at HudsonAlpha is working on matching drugs with diseases based on the genome.

It’s an area that is going to grow, and grow quickly, Smitherman said.

He said the first IBM personal computer was introduced in 1981, prompting a revolution that has led to the ability to carry a computer in your pocket that is 100-times more powerful and able to link to everything man has ever known.

It took 13 years, billions of dollars and scientists from all over the world to complete the original human genome mapping project in 2003. Today, Smitherman said it can be done in one lab in a few days at a cost of less than $15,000.

Smitherman said when it gets to the $1,000 level, there will be an explosion with individuals getting their genes mapped so the treatments and medications can be targeted to them.

HudsonAlpha works with numerous universities, including UAB, and is studying everything from obesity to Parkinson’s, tackling diseases from cancer to neurological disorders.

"HudsonAlpha collaborates with UAB in a number of different ways," said Holly Ralston, director of communications at HudsonAlpha. "We have a number of education and research ties."

There is even research regarding changing the genetics of yeast to produce gasoline instead of rum when it feasts on sugar cane.

A second building is being built for research at the 150-acre Cummings Research Park in Huntsville that HudsonAlpha anchors. The campus also includes a conference center with room for several more buildings to be added over the years.