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    going to be one of the biggest biotechs in the world........................Paul Watt

    Scientific director, Phylogica

    Natural selection is a powerful force in business: only the fittest survive. Paul Watt's company Phylogica is no exception to the rule. What sets it apart is that this fledgling biotech firm is tapping into evolution in nature to prosper in business.

    Many diseases can be treated if you can find a way to block the interactions of certain proteins in the body. This can sometimes be achieved with antibodies, but the weakness of this approach is that they don't work for all protein interactions, especially those inside cells. Small molecules can also be used, but they are often not as specific in their action, leading to undesirable side effects.

    When he worked as a scientist at the Telethon Institute of Child Health Research in Perth, Western Australia, Watt was looking into using chains of amino acids called peptides to do the job - specifically for cancer. The problem was that the standard peptide library, created by randomly assorting amino acids, had in other studies generated few hits against disease targets such as cancer, and many of the peptides created this way were inherently unstable.

    "So we looked at what evolution had generated - natural selection has already chosen sequences that fold into stable structures," he says. It turns out only about 3000 different types of fold - 3D shapes formed by the peptide chain folding in on itself - can be formed. Watt surmised that it would be possible to find good examples of each of these structures in nature.

    Using DNA sequences from a variety of evolutionarily diverse, ancient bacterial species, Watt started to build a library and set up Phylogica six years ago to commercialise it. The company's libraries now contain some 260 million naturally occurring peptides that can be screened for potential therapeutic activity in areas as diverse as asthma, stroke and diabetes. Phylogica works with other companies and research groups to screen the libraries for peptides with therapeutic potential in diseases of interest.

    Watt says that academic scientists who make the jump into biotechnology have to be comfortable with the different approach to research in a commercial environment. They have to be ruthlessly pragmatic, ready to abandon a technology if it is superseded by a new idea, and willing to embrace new technologies. "You don't get rewarded for the technology, you get rewarded for the results," he says. "You have to make compromises and focus on the fastest path to achieve commercial ends."

    For Watt, developing his initial idea into a commercially viable technology has been a rewarding process. It was a magic moment, he says, when he first realised that his idea was a truly original and useful tool for drug discovery. "I feel that I'm more of an inventor by nature, more of an engineer," Watt says. "Solving a commercial problem is interesting in itself."

    Glenn Tong

 
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