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search system," says del Castillo. They
hope to be able to monetize the system
through advertisements, as they will
regularly reach a broad spectrum of the
international scientific community.
COMPUTATIONS FOR THE
Search optimization also inspired Ignasi
Belda when he and his partners in Barce-
lona created Intelligent Phar ma, "a kind of
a Google for compounds," says Belda.
They've developed a computerized sys-
tem called Helios to search for molecules
that might match the functions of ones
that researchers plug into the database.
"They connect to our website, they put
in the compound that they want to mimic,
and then they click 'search'," says Belda.
"Our supercomputer does the calcula-
tions to obtain a list of the compounds
that have the same biological activity as the
compound that the user introduced."
To do this, they've created algorithms
that calculate the physical and chemi-
cal properties of the molecule, in three-
dimensional space. "It's a kind of virtual
atom that we move around the compound,"
says Belda. By testing the virtual interac-
tions between the compound and their vir-
tual atom, they generate 22 different fields,
such as charge, hydrophobicity, and abil-
ity to accept hydrogen bonds. The system
runs through millions of compounds in a
database to determine which ones might
have the same fields, and thus perhaps the
"This might be helpful if you have a nat-
ural product that's difficult to synthesize
and you need another compound more
chemically available," says Belda.
The company's current research focus,
adds Belda, is to create software based
on artificial intelligence that will aid in
the creation of new compounds for dr ug
The founders of NorayBio, based in Bil-
bao, saw a need for advanced computations
and data analysis in the field of biotechnol-
ogy. The founders, with experience in bio-
technology, chemistry, and research, worked
in collaboration with companies and clients
to develop software to suit their needs.
Small companies and research groups
"were just using an Excel set," says Julio
Font, CEO. "Now that's changed; they
know they need specialized software for
managing data." NorayBio designs soft-
ware for managing sample banks (such as
DNA or tissue samples) that can be tai-
lored to meet a customer's needs.
The company is now developing a
visualization system for biomarkers, so
researchers can actually see the data in rela-
tionship to different biological pathways.
The first one in development is software to
visualize biomarkers in liver disease. "It's
been exciting to see the market evolution,"
says Font. "Two or three years ago poten-
tial customers said they could manage their
data with a simple spreadsheet, and now
they call and say, 'I need your software.'"
Integromics, a spinoff from the
National Center for Biotechnology begun
in 2003, has developed a number of solu-
tions to help companies manage and ana-
lyze their experimental gene-expression
data. The software takes all the infor ma-
tion created by a research instrument such
as a PCR machine and perfor ms the data
analysis for the scientist. The company's
founders have focused their sights inter-
nationally, and they count companies like
Pfizer and Novartis among their clients.
"Usually it takes time for a small com-
pany to build up a base," says Marco
system won't allow such a case to be brought to court. "A key
differentiating factor between the U.S. and Europe, particularly
Spain, is the access to fresh human samples," he says.
Ballesteros left his company in San Diego and brought some
of his team to Spain, where in 2007 he founded a new company,
Vivia Biotech, with his brother Andres.
Vivia Biotech is partnering with hospitals that have samples
of blood and bone marrow samples, and signed consent forms,
from leukemia patients. He says his system can test thousands of
combinations of the less than a dozen approved leukemia drugs.
"We're already seeing tremendous differences" in how different
patients' cancers respond to different drug combinations, he
says. In theory, a doctor in the future would be able to send his
patient's blood in to be tested, and could get an answer back in
24 hours about the patient's best course of treatment.
"This is what doctors have been doing for years, one drug at a
time," says Ballesteros. "We're only altering the scale." Ballesteros
hopes that this method will be validated within a year.
Ballesteros doesn't stop there. He's particularly excited
about the prospect of using this machine to discover new
cancer-fighting drugs among existing, approved drugs that treat
Most researchers are investigating what genes or proteins
differ in cancer and trying to create molecules to kill cancer
that don't kill healthy cells, says Ballesteros, "but we do exactly
the opposite. We say, let's get all the drugs that don't kill you.
And of those, let's see if some of them kill cancer." He ticks
off antibiotics, drugs for the flu, for headaches, for Parkinson's.
So far, he says, "the data is amazing, much better than what
we had expected."
"We've found ten very safe drugs that have the same efficacy in
killing cancer as the harmful chemotherapy drugs," he says; but it
will take at least three to five years to go through the necessary
trials before any will be validated for cancer treatment.
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