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Agilent Forms Materials Sciences Unit, Will Launch New miRNA Array Platform

This story originally appeared in Biocommerce Week, a newsletter that has been discontinued.
 
It’s been a busy two weeks for Agilent. In addition to announcing that it would acquire Stratagene for $246 million (see related article in this issue), the firm also said that it would launch a new miRNA array platform, and it formed a new business unit within its Life Sciences and Chemical Analysis business.
 
While the Stratagene acquisition trumped the other events, they all point to Agilent’s increasing focus on its life sciences business. According to company officials, the miRNA platform and the new Materials Sciences Solutions Unit will expand the firm’s user base and create new revenue opportunities.
 
It has been over a year since Agilent sold off its semiconductor business and a lighting joint venture in an effort to concentrate on its core life sciences and electronic measurement businesses (see BioCommerce Week 8/18/2005). Company officials said at the time that they hoped to make Wall Street take more notice of its Life Sciences and Chemical Analysis business through both organic growth and acquisitions.
 
Among Agilent’s plans was to expand its spectroscopy offerings and mass spec product line, which happened through the introduction of several new instruments over the past year.
 
New Unit Formed
 
Aiming to capitalize on the complementary parts of its business, Agilent two weeks ago formed the new MSS unit, which includes the firm’s optical spectroscopy and microscopy instruments, as part of the LSCA business. The products are housed within the LSCA business and are used predominantly in industrial applications.
 
But according to Chris van Ingen, president of the LSCA business, it is possible these tools could be applied to life science research, such as cell and protein analysis.
 
“There’s this whole space of optical spectroscopy and microscopy, and that’s give or take about an $8 billion to $10 billion opportunity,” said van Ingen. “We recently acquired a company to fundamentally start a business in the atomic force microscopy area,” which is the centerpiece of the new unit, he told BioCommerce Week.
 
“We believe the contribution we can make is to move these techniques to smaller, benchtop-size models that are easy to use [and] with applicability not only in the electronic and semiconductor R&D space, but also in chemical analysis and life sciences,” van Ingen said. “It is basically the beginning of a larger business we’d like to look at for Agilent.”
 
He said the atomic force microscope and spectroscopy instruments form the nucleus of the new unit, “and we’ll lay out a strategy in the next few months to capture more of that space.” Agilent introduced its AFM instrument about a year ago, and the firm is working on a family of products based on that initial offering, van Ingen said.
 
He said that Agilent had focused for the past 30 years on the separations mass spectrometry space, and in recent years entered the inorganics business through a joint venture in Japan, for which it recently bought out the minority share.
 
“There are a lot of synergies in terms of optics between the two businesses,” said van Ingen.
 
In the LSCA business, he said that about a third of Agilent’s revenue opportunity is in the life sciences space, another third is in applied markets, and the final third is in surface science and materials testing. “It gives us adjacent market opportunities to which we can fundamentally contribute,” said van Ingen.
 
miRNA Platform Set to Launch
 
In addition to the new materials sciences unit, Agilent officials told BioCommerce Week last week that the firm would launch a new miRNA microarray platform this month.
 
Agilent is betting that the miRNA array will attract drug makers, especially those working in oncology research.
 

“We believe the contribution we can make is to move these techniques to smaller, benchtop size models, that are easy to use [and] with applicability not only in the electronic and semiconductor R&D space, but also in chemical analysis and life sciences.”

The firm will debut its Human 1.0 miRNA microarray product two years after the first miRNA chips hit the market, but the company believes that its ability to offer customers a wide variety of technologies, from hybridization stations to scanners, analysis software, and a robust labeling technique, could play in its favor.
 
Yvonne Linney, head of Agilent's genomics business, told BioCommerce Week last week that Agilent will begin shipping the array within the next two weeks, and that it will comprise all known human miRNAs from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute's mirBASE version 9.1 in an eight-array format that takes advantage of Agilent's multi-assay capabilities.
 
Agilent’s microarray kit will come with three slides or 24 microarrays, Linney said. Also included will be a cyanine-3 pCp labeling reagent that is sufficient for labeling all 24 reactions, and protocols for labeling, hybridization, scanning, and data analysis.
 
According to Linney, Agilent plans to follow the launch of the Human 1.0 microarray later this year with a more comprehensive catalog miRNA array that will include updated human content as well as miRNAs from other model organisms such as mouse and rat. These follow-ups will come with a new labeling kit.
 
"I think the important thing we've done is expand [our] application base. We've made a strong showing in array CGH, and microRNA is another application that we could grow there," Linney said.
 
"We are obviously not the first company to offer any type of [miRNA] solution," she said, alluding to competitors like CombiMatrix, Invitrogen, Applied Biosystems, and Exiqon, who have had miRNA arrays in the market for over a year.
 
"From where we are, we are still working on the experimental design and making sure we have a robust design to go forward, and I think that some of the key discoveries we've made makes it sufficient to say, 'Hey, we can offer the market something that isn't out there,'" said Linney.
 
Agilent decided to put its miRNA probes on stilts because they are typically 20 nucleotides long, a set-up that the company believes will increase the sensitivity of the arrays.
 
Agilent isn’t the only miRNA array vendor to talk up its probe design and labeling technology. Invitrogen, which rolled out the second version of its multi-species NCode miRNA product last fall, also sees its strength in its labeling system, according to Amy Butler, vice president of gene-expression profiling at Invitrogen.

Butler wrote BioCommerce Week sister publication BioArray News in an e-mail last week that the NCode labeling system uses DNA dendrimers with Alexa fluor dyes that provide a "strong signal with minimal background, [and] outperform all other commercially available labeling methods." Like Agilent, Invitrogen has also been targeting the pharma and oncology markets, Butler wrote.

 

— Justin Petrone contributed to this article.

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