Cypher Genomics chief speaks out from DNA data-crunching crowd

Is genome interpretation approaching "bubble" status as startups rise all around to find what matters in massive amounts of DNA data? That question might be premature, but Bio-IT World editor and genomics chronicler Kevin Davies questioned the chief executive of one of the higher-profile outfits from the field, Cypher Genomics, to find out what makes the startup stand out from the crowd.

It's a tough question. Cypher CEO Ashley Van Zeeland even has trouble accounting for all the new companies to surface in recent years and months to puzzle out information in the genome. Yet the San Diego company is carving out a niche in understanding friendly variants from potentially unhealthy genetic oddballs in the voluminous bunch, she tells Davies. It's a huge problem, she says, that has stumped researchers and now clinicians trying to coax answers from massive data sets.

"You can't functionally validate every VUS [variant of unknown significance] in an individual's genome or across populations," Van Zeeland says in the interview, "so we have to come up with other tools to address that need."

Cypher is working with Scripps Health and Complete Genomics to build a database to delineate the harmless and troublesome variants, she noted. With other differentiators in mind, Cypher has opened its interpretation software for early use in a beta program, which should enable more people to test-drive the tech out of Scripps Translational Science Institute (STSI). Cypher boasts an All-Star list of co-founders that includes Dr. Eric Topol, the director of STSI, Scripps bioinformatics expert Nicholas Schork, and STSI's Ali Torkamani, who led the creation of Cypher's tech tools. Topol has achieved rock-star status in medicine.

Still, all of these genome interpretation companies feature smart founders and execs. And the research community has an expanding menu of options to slice and dice and visualize genomic data. While no two seem to do this the same way, the contenders include Appistry, Knome, Silicon Valley Biosystems, Ingenuity and a growing list of others. And not all companies in the field are going to make it. 

- read Davies' interview