While "industrializing biology" has become an increasingly important theme of companies striving to increase the success rate of the drug discovery process, most companies are attacking the problem by building on a base in pharmaceutical expertise.

But Genencor International Inc. is working from a completely different direction, building on two decades of literal experience in industrial biology that have given it extensive knowledge of how to genetically modify proteins by understanding and manipulating metabolic pathways.

Indeed, GCOR was doing directed evolution before the term existed. Although the space now includes companies such as Diversa Corp. (DVSA, San Diego, Calif.), Applied Molecular Evolution Inc. (AMEV, San Diego, Calif.), Maxygen Inc. (MAXY, Redwood City, Calif.) and Enchira Biotechnology Corp. (ENBC, The Woodlands, Texas), GCOR is building on an industrial enzymes business that posted revenues of $240 million for the first nine months of 2000.

"Modification of proteins is what we're all about," said Scott Power, a research fellow at GCOR who has been with the company since its formation in 1982.

In fact, the ability to modify proteins was one of the founding technologies at GCOR (Rochester, N.Y.). "In 1981, Corning Glass Works was doing a lot of work on immobilizing enzymes on glass, which had applications in the manufacture of high fructose corn syrup," said Michael Arbige, senior vice president of technology. "They decided they needed to get into the genetic side of the house and formed a partnership with Genentech. One of Genentech's key inventions was the ability to modify a protein by changing an amino acid. That was what led to the formation of Genencor."

The one caveat was that GCOR couldn't apply the technology in health care. Most of those restrictions came off in 1997, and after its $126 million IPO last year, the company is ready to move into the pharmaceutical space with six technology platforms that it has fashioned through internal development and acquisition: gene discovery and functional genomics; molecular evolution and design; human immunology; metabolic pathway engineering; bomaterials and production systems; and formulation delivery systems.

Building the platform

In the early 1980s, the prevailing wisdom among drug development experts was that only natural proteins could be administered as drugs, and that modified proteins couldn't be made into therapeutics. "So we were the only ones doing protein modification," said Power.