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[Bio Startup] Avellino Labs aims to set example for Kosdaq listing of US firms

From assisting disease prevention with DNA diagnosis, company aims for potentially curing genetic diseases

June 30, 2019 - 18:19 By Lim Jeong-yeo

Thinking of undergoing vision-sharpening surgery but scared if things would go awry as you grow older? Taking cue of such concerns among people contemplating lasik surgery, genetic services provider Avellino Labs, headquartered in Palo Alto, California, has developed a DNA diagnostic kit which the company claims has protected 1,108 people from blindness as of June 2019 from the 743,969 patients thus far tested.

With the addition of coming keratoconus test, Avellino Labs can help millions of people via early detection, the company says.

Avellino Labs helps ophthalmologists decide whether their patients can have eye surgery and still not run into medical problems later as they age by making preemptive diagnosis based on DNA information.

“All information about life is in the DNA. It’s only that humans are yet to completely crack the secret,” said Avellino Labs founder and Chairman Gene Lee.

Avellino Labs founder and Chairman Gene Lee (Lim Jeong-yeo/The Korae Herald)

Originally established in South Korea in 2008, the company set up its Silicon Valley office in 2011 and turned it to its headquarters in 2016.

Avellino Labs anticipates to go public on Korea’s secondary bourse Kosdaq in the first quarter of 2020, and Lee says he wants to set an example and a standard to follow for US companies that wish to enter the Korean stock market, or for Korean companies that hope to venture into Silicon Valley.

“We understand there are concerns over Korean bio stocks due to what happened with Invossa, but we’re certain that we can impress the bourse with global standards from the Sillicon Valley,” said Lee in an interview with The Korea Herald at the company’s Korea office in Gangnam-gu, Seoul.

He was referring to the license-revoked joint-inflammation gene therapy drug Invossa of Kolon Life Science, that rattled the gene therapy stocks in May. Kolon had mislabeled the main ingredient of Invossa in its license application with the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety here, and the 15-year belated discovery led to the revocation of the drug.

Avellino Labs takes its name from the rare genetic eye disease called Avellino corneal dystrophy where protein collects in the cornea of those in their senior years, fogging up their vision. The condition is undetectable at earlier ages when people correct their vision through lasik or similar surgery, which could hasten the symptom or exacerbate it.

Avellino Lab’s technology at the moment is mostly preventive. It supplies mouth swab test kit to ophthalmologists and conducts DNA analysis which returns results in 90 minutes. Since 2017, the company has expanded on their technologies through the use of next-generation sequencing and will be releasing a test that can detect over 1,000 variants linked with keratoconus problems, in addition to an expanded panel of corneal dystrophies. This would represent a breakthrough in ophthalmology and an opportunity to detect painful and blinding diseases before they begin to affect a patient’s vision, the company said.

Avellino Labs has been in discussions with big players in the ophthalmic surgery space to supply the kits through them globally, once the Avellino Labs test kits pass the validation process in the US by October and subsequently acquires the CLIA license.

Avellino Labs is currently working on the next step, to come up with genetic treatments through the development of gene therapy involving the CRISPR gene editing technology. Known as the scissors that can morph genetic sequence, CRISPR is Avellino Labs’ bet on managing and potentially curing genetic diseases, such as lattice corneal dystrophy, granular corneal dystrophy, and Reis-Bucklers dystrophy.

After gene diagnostics and gene therapy, the third stage of Avellino Labs’ business model is medical big data.

In May, the company brought in William F. Stasior, former director of Apple’s Siri technology, to the Avellino Labs’ executive advisory committee. Stasior is also a consultant to the company who will help build Avellino’s big data platform.

"Eyes are the ultimate display,” Lee said, “And once Google and others push for developing smart lenses, they would need a firm like us for big data on ophthalmology.”

Lee also anticipated that Avellino Labs’ DNA analysis would branch out to dermatology, and not just the peripheral skin but also the skin of organs, in which case the company will have to change its name to accommodate the wider variety of genetics tests it taps.

By Lim Jeong-yeo/The Korea Herald (