UCSC grad students launch cancer genomics company in Santa Cruz

Five3 Genomics offers genomics software and services for personalized cancer therapy

company cofounders

The cofounders of Five3 Genomics are (left to right) Charles Vaske, Steven Benz, and Zachary Sanborn, all former graduate students in the Baskin School of Engineering. (Photo credit: Octopus Creative)

The cofounders of Five3 Genomics, a new biotech company based in Santa Cruz, are former graduate students in the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz, where they helped develop innovative cancer genomics software.

Their company, which has signed a license agreement with UCSC, offers software and services for cancer researchers, pharmaceutical companies, and health-care organizations. Its goal is to provide the data processing and analysis required for personalized cancer therapy, in which treatments are matched to the specific genetic aberrations found in an individual patient's cancer cells.

"We're working with academic collaborators to build out the platform and starting conversations with pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies," said CEO Steve Benz, who completed his Ph.D. in bioinformatics this year. "It's a great opportunity to be able to take this technology and commercialize it so that it can be used to help patients."

In addition to Benz, the cofounders of Five3 Genomics include chief technical officer Zachary Sanborn and chief scientific officer Charles Vaske. All three of them worked as graduate students with UC Santa Cruz bioinformatics experts David Haussler and Joshua Stuart, who are doing pioneering work in the field of cancer genomics. Haussler, a professor of biomolecular engineering and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, said that Benz, Sanborn, and Vaske were "brilliant grad students."

"Working at UCSC they were exposed to the cutting edge in computational genomics," Haussler said. "They played a key role in developing our cancer genomics program. They are pure self-starters, and developed the code to implement their ideas from the bottom up. The algorithms they developed represented new breakthroughs in our ability to interpret DNA sequence information obtained from cancer tumors. This area is poised to move from the academic realm into the clinical realm in the next few years. By spinning off a start-up company, they have put themselves in an excellent position to play a key role in this transformation."

Vaske, who earned his Ph.D. in 2009, and Benz were lead developers of a software program from Stuart's lab called Paradigm. Stuart, a professor of biomolecular engineering, has been a close collaborator with Haussler on cancer genomics projects, including The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) funded by the National Institutes of Health and two cancer research "Dream Teams" funded by Stand Up To Cancer and other organizations.

Paradigm, one of the core technologies for Five3 Genomics, is used to understand which molecular pathways are affected by the genetic changes in a patient's cancer cells. This information can be used in a clinical setting to guide therapeutic decisions and by pharmaceutical companies to identify new targets for drug development.

"On the pharmaceutical side, we can provide indications for new uses for drugs that are already out there, as well as identify targets for new drugs," Benz said.

Sanborn, who will finish his Ph.D. this year, worked in Haussler's lab on a DNA sequence analysis program called BamBam, which is used to identify the genetic changes in cancer cells. Sanborn and Benz also contributed to the development of the UCSC Cancer Genome Browser in Haussler's lab.

The scientific advisors for Five3 Genomics include Haussler and Stuart, as well as Patrick Soon-Shiong, M.D., a surgeon, medical researcher, and biotechnology entrepreneur, and Margaret Tempero, M.D., deputy director and director of research programs at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

"It's particularly gratifying to see this UCSC research transition to a commercial product, so these cutting-edge techniques can begin to benefit the public as quickly as possible," said Bruce Margon, vice chancellor for research at UCSC.