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Ashley Van Zeeland

Neuroscientist starts own biotech company before 30th birthday

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Ashley Van Zeeland said it was a “perfect confluence of events” that led her, at age 29, to co-found La Jolla-based Cypher Genomics in 2011.

The genome interpretation company was spun off from the Scripps Translational Science Institute, where Van Zeeland was conducting postdoctoral research into the genomics of psychological disorders under bioinformatics expert Nicholas Schork.

A neuroscientist by training, Van Zeeland had to learn programming, coding and bioinformatics on her own in order to work on the genome sequencing project. If that weren’t enough to keep her busy, she was also pursuing an MBA at UCSD’s Rady School of Management during nights and weekends.

When Ali Torkamani, STSI director of drug discovery, created a way to automate sequencing analysis, it was “a real ‘a-ha’ moment,” Van Zeeland said. His technology became the foundation for Cypher Genomics.

“STSI was much more industry-friendly than any other academic environment I’d been in, with lots of public-private partnerships and collaborations, and I was involved in some of those. That had opened up my eyes to this whole other side of science -- the business side of science,” she said.

Van Zeeland founded Cypher Genomics along with Schork, Torkamani and STSI Director Eric Topol, M.D., to commercialize the technology, which uses extensive databases and computational algorithms to provide comprehensive genome interpretation.

“One of the big problems with genomics is simply the amount of data, and the amount of processing horsepower you need to do this in any reasonable amount of time,” Van Zeeland said. “We have a cloud system where users don’t have to purchase computational infrastructure, nor do they have to download, install or manage the software itself. You access it online, and we provide the tools. We also have in-house expertise to complement that with services, for more complicated problems.”

For example, the medical community is now turning to whole genome sequencing to study idiopathic diseases. These are patients that have undergone a number of diagnostic tests, with all of the known single-gene tests coming up negative.

“In that instance, the reference lab could perform whole sequencing in a clean environment. We could process the data, and we could turn that genome around with a molecular diagnosis in about two hours,” Van Zeeland said. “That’s a clinically meaningful time window.”

The company can assess the impact of all the variants in the genome, and prioritize which variant might be causing the patient’s disease. It all happens in the cloud, and Cypher can then generate a report that goes back to the lab.

To date, Cypher Genomics has worked with hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, academic research groups and sequencing technology companies. It also has working partnerships with health care IT groups.

Van Zeeland hopes her company can help drive targeted drug development and enable more rapid and effective treatment.

“I’m 100 percent committed to building this company because I really believe in it, and I believe the technology has the ability to make an impact,” she said. “My personal goal is just to make it happen, to see it through and to really help enable genomic medicine.”

-Klam is a San-Diego based freelance writer.

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