Russian Scientist Realizes American Dream with InforMax

Article excerpt

It reads like a classic American success story. Alex Titomirov, a young Russian scientist, comes to the United States, starts a company with $300, and eight years later, has built a firm with $2.5 million in annual revenues, 45 employees and clients in 50 countries around the world.

Revenues of the Bethesda company, InforMax Inc., will likely hit $10 million this year, and the number of employees will probably double. Mr. Titomirov, who is president and chief executive officer, hopes to take the company public in a few years.

"America is the best place in the world to start a business," said the 38-year-old St. Petersburg native.

InforMax is capitalizing on the fast-growing "bioinformatics" industry, which combines computer science with molecular biology. The field is poised to revolutionize the way new drugs are discovered.

Scientists in the field use specialized computer software do high-speed, automated DNA sequencing, thereby deciphering the strings of DNA code. Researchers can then simulate experiments on the computer, before they actually try them out in a lab.

Some procedures that used to take a week can now be done in a day; "orders of magnitude can be deciphered faster and more accurately" than in the past, noted Bob Schwartz, industry director of Biotechnology and Biomedical Applications at the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology, a nonprofit group in Herndon.

Ultimately, the software will result in speedier, less costly drug trials for the roughly 1,000 pharmaceutical companies around the world. Companies invest an average of 12 years and $200 million to discover and put a new drug on the market.

They spend an average of $500 million a year on high throughput screening (HTS) - an analysis of chemical compounds that is essential in selecting the best chemical compound to become a new drug. InforMax is working to computerize the procedure, Mr. Titomirov said.

"The computers can dramatically reduce the cost of finding the right chemicals, which could interact with the potential target causing the disease," he said.

To enhance its HTS software, InforMax is going to start a research department, which will employ 15 to 20 mathematicians to devise proprietary algorithms for computer drug design.

Scientists are using bioinformatics software to manage the torrent of data being generated by the National Institutes of Health Human Genome Project, which is mapping genes.

Scientists believe the genetic data will lead to a range of breakthroughs in devising treatments for diseases.

Bioinformatics will also be used in environmental projects, Mr. Schwartz predicted.

"Scientists will be able to look at environmental problems from the molecular level up," he said. This could include figuring out which bacteria might be cloned for environmental cleanup.

The software produced by InforMax allows scientists to store "a gigantic amount of information on human and other species' genomes, in gigabyte-sized databases," Mr. Titomirov said.

The idea for InforMax came about somewhat serendipitously. Mr. Titomirov was a doctoral student in molecular genetics at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, when James Watson invited him to the United States in 1989 to give scientific lectures. Mr. Watson and Frances Crick won the Nobel prize for discovering the genetic code in 1953.

Once in the United States, Mr. …