Life Technologies Inc. announced yesterday a joint research venture with Los Alamos National Laboratories that will put the Gaithersburg company near the forefront of path-breaking basic research into human genetics and the causes of human disease.
The three-year deal gives the Gaithersburg company the first rightto manufacture any commercially useful chemicals discovered during the joint research with the New Mexico-based federal laboratory.
Life Technologies will pay royalties to the laboratory if it decides to go ahead and produce any new enzymes or other chemicals, Mary Fraker, a company spokeswoman, said.
"It's very early stage [research]," said Margaret Smith, a Boston-basedsecurity analyst for the Baltimore firm of Alex. Brown & Sons Inc. "But it could be very significant four or five years out," depending on what is discovered during the research, she said.
Life Technologies and the federal laboratory will work together on new technologies to determine the sequence of different "base pairs," or nucleic acids, that make up strands of DNA.
Ms. Fraker said that Life Technologies and Los Alamos wanted to work together because the specialties of their researchers complement each other. Los Alamos scientists are world leaders in developing instruments that speed the process of genetic mapping, while Life Technologies is a leader in developing chemicals that are used in biotechnology research.
The structure of a person's DNA can determine everything from whether he will be mentally retarded to whether he is likely to contract any of hundreds of genetically transmitted diseases.
Yet in the case of most genetic diseases, researchers don't know which of the body's 23 pairs of chromosomes, 100,000 genes contained on those chromosomes, or the estimated 3 billion base pairs that make up all those genes is the culprit.
The Life Technologies-Los Alamos research project is part of a much larger federally funded Human Genome Project.
The project's goal is to sequence -- effectively, make a map of -- all of the 3 billion base pairs that make up a human being's genetic code, Ms. Fraker said.
The Human Genome Project will give scientists a much more complete picture of which genes do what to the human body, and where on a person's chromosomes to find the gene that could cause any genetically transmitted defect or disease.
Such knowledge could have profound impact on doctors' ability to predict, prevent and treat disease. It could also open up a gold mine of opportunities for biotechnology companies, said George Shipp, a securities analyst for the Richmond firm of Scott & Stringfellow.
"The Human Genome Project is similar to the invention of the transistor or the semiconductor," he said. "There's no telling where this is going to take us. . . . But the Human Genome Project will hopefully put the United States on the cutting edge of 21st century health care."
Mr. Shipp and Ms. Smith both said the commercial potential of the deal for Life Technologies was hard to predict, partly because the company took the unusual step of not telling the financial community the announcement was coming.
Normally, publicly traded companies such as Life Technologies take pains to keep Wall Street informed of their moves.
"I don't know what it does for them, other than putting them in the right place at the right time," Mr. Shipp said.
Even though the company disclosed yesterday morning's press conference to news organizations earlier in the week, neither analyst knew the deal had been reached until hearing of it from reporters yesterday afternoon.