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November 10, 1995 - Image 55

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1995-11-10

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Cellular Sleuthing

ou could say Howard Cash is in
the business of helping others find
hidden treasures — not gold or sil-
ver, but molecules.
His company, Gene Codes Corpo-
ration in Ann Arbor, provides a sophis-
ticated sleuthing tool to uncover secrets
locked in human DNA. The company's
sole product, a computer software pro-
gram called "Sequencher," is a high-
tech decoder that helps genetic
researchers unscramble and identify pat-
terns in DNA, the blueprint of a person's
genetic makeup.
Unlocking the clues in the thousands
of tiny pieces of the human puzzle and
understanding the flaws that may be lurk-
ing there can lead to testing and treat-
ment of serious diseases, like cancer.
"(Sequencher) doesn't find where the
gene is," Mr. Cash said. "After you've
found (the gene), people use Sequencher
to figure out what the differences are be-
tween the normal gene and a diseased
gene. Knowing where it is, is half the bat-
tle, and the other half is figuring out
what's different," he said.
Gene Codes is the brainchild of Mr.
Cash, a 36-year-old Oak Park native. His Howard Cash: Fencer, parrot lover and genetic engineer.
firm is the kind of small but growing en-
terprise where the boss is likely to answer the to start the company. He returned to Michi-
phone, and Mr. Cash's pet, an African -- gan, gathered investors and incorporated in
gray parrot named Ripley (after the 1988. He introduced the first version of Se-
heroine of the Alien movies), has a perch quencher in 1991.
To date, the accomplishment of which Mr.
of honor in his office.
Mr. Cash got into the genetic software Cash is most proud is the pivotal role Se-
business by an unconventional route. A quencher and Gene Codes played in the re-
former competitive fencer with ranking cent discovery of a gene involved in certain
and Olympic aspirations, his career in- kinds of colon cancer.
Ideals aside, Mr. Cash said, biotechnical re-
terests led him first into classical mu-
search is a highly competitive, high-risk busi-
After graduating from Berkley High ness. On the academic side is the pressure to
School, he studied music at the Uni- publish and obtain grant money. The com-
versity of Pennsylvania and then took mercial side is driven by profit.
Pharmaceutical companies and biotechni-
a position as the assistant conductor of
the Pennsylvania Opera Theater. Even- cal firms are locked in a fierce battle, spend-
tually, Mr. Cash said, he became more ing millions of dollars trying to bring new
interested in the technical side of mu- developments to the medical and agricultur-
sic, in "why melodies sound like melodies al markets, among others. They patent their
discoveries to protect their work.
and random noises don't."
"If you find it first and get it to the patent
In 1982, he entered Stanford University to
study audio engineering. His mastery there office, that affects whether you get to get any
of a computer program called SAIL helped money for all this research," Mr. Cash said.
him land a job at a biotechnology firm. Mr. "The battles between competing laboratories
Cash had also taken some biology classes and can be pretty intense. As long as those battles
found he was fascinated with the combination go on, we do well regardless of who wins. We
are the 'arms dealer,' supplying both sides."
of computer research and life science.
The cost for Gene Codes' "weapon," or soft-
One of the first programs he worked on was
is $1,800 for not-for-profit firms and
used to sequence the AIDS virus.
Mr. Cash said the field of biotechnology is $2,600 for commercial concerns.
Mr. Cash maintains that his software is the
young, as sciences go, and is rapidly growing
fastest and most efficient for sequencing the
and changing.
"It's a field where there are so many prob- genetic patterns needed to win the race.
"We provide a real competitive advantage.
lems that haven't been addressed because no
software is easier to use, and by being eas-
one has gotten to them yet, where there are
chances to make terrific contributions in a way ier to use, someone can use it more efficient-
ly and solve the problem faster," he said.
that you can't in more mature sciences."
In fact, a 1992 review of the software in
It was that wide-open opportunity and the
named Sequencher the best soft-
" c f t x* vsec
desire to be his own boss that prompted him

An Ann Arbor
company is at the
forefront of
identifying and
decoding DNA


ware for sequencing DNA, citing speed and
ease of use.
"I like it quite well," said Dr. Bonnie Vassler,
a molecular biologist at Princeton University.
"It is not as fancy as a number of other pro-
grams, but it's cheaper, and if you're not do-
ing the real fancy stuff, it's fine. It depends on
your needs and your budget."
Sequencing DNA is a huge business and
one of the most critical aspects of developing
new drugs, said Glenn Dawes, a genetic re-
searcher with Affymax, a laboratory in Palo
Alto, Calif., that is owned by pharmaceutical
giant Glaxo. He said that billion-dollar drug
therapy programs are based on the sequence
analysis done by software like Sequencher,
and if the data are faulty or hard to interpret,
it wastes precious time and money.
Sequencher, he said, "has no rival in its spe-
cific application" for the needs of his lab.
Gene Codes markets Sequencher in the
United States, Europe and Israel. The com-
pany recently branched into the Japanese
market, signing an agreement last May with
Hitachi Software Engineering. About 100
copies of the software were sold the first half
of this year.
As for the future, Mr. Cash said, there are
other programs in development that will in- c
tegrate and work well with his cornerstone 1–
product. He sees the possibilities as limitless
and profound.
"Modern biotechnology and genetic engi-
neering are, in my opinion, the most signifi-
cant technological advances in the history of Lu
civilization, the breadth of applications not just
in medicine ... but in how we feed people. The z
ramifications are so incredibly far-reaching
that I could not pick a better field to be in." D 31

r y.,

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