NEW YORK, March 22 – Fiber optics giant Corning, which has recently secured key partnerships in its effort to mass-produce microarrays, is planning a full-scale commercial launch of its human microarray in June, the company said.
This launch comprises the first major commercialization step in Corning’s microarray marketing plans. “Our intention is to have genome-wide coverage across major organisms of interest,” for the arrays, said John Lubniewski, manager of sales and marketing for Corning Microarray Technologies.
These arrays, which rely on a different technology than the photolithography method employed by Affymetrix, could help Corning to promote its chips as a high-density, lower-cost alternative to the Affymetrix chips, without the risks of a potential patent dispute.
To design an efficient and cost-effective mass-production process for the arrays, Corning’s microarray technology group has been raiding the company’s large toolbox of proprietary manufacturing techniques. “Corning is a materials company, and we essentially went through our research labs and picked and chose what we needed,” said Lubniewski.
For the printing of arrays, Lubniewski said, the company borrowed the process it uses to print out pixels on laptop computer displays. The company took the honeycomb structure of the catalytic converters to design the print head for the arrays, but instead of using ceramic, used specialty glass. And for designing the pin plate for the arrays, the company used the same process it uses when drawing out fiber optic cable.
The engineers at Corning then faced the challenge of assembling these parts into one clear assembly line, which they estimate will be able to produce high-density arrays at a rate of one per minute.
In late 2000, they test-drove the process by manufacturing a 6,000-gene human DNA chip, which they made commercially available in a limited beta launch at the end of November. This array quickly sold out, Lubniewski said. Nevertheless, it highlighted areas of improvement needed before the company could launch the commercial product in June.
“We took what we learned from the 6K [human slide] to design the new human chips, which employ a different design,” said Lubniewski, who would not comment on the number of genes the next generation of chips would contain.
In January, Corning, which also sells a 6,100-gene array for yeast, secured content for its chips by signing agreements with Incyte and Invitrogen to license their libraries of DNA.
Corning intends for these partnerships to supplement its own expertise in manufacturing methods. “What we bring to the market is a highly reproducible, high quality manufacturing process,” said Lubniewski. “We view it as one of the key competitive advantages.”
Corning also has a $10 million agreement with the Whitehead Institute/ MIT Center for Genome Research, announced in October, in which the MIT scientists are developing specific research and diagnostic applications for its arrays.
Microarray experts believe that application of mass production methods by companies like Corning could bring down the cost of microarrays, enabling researchers who now make their own arrays because they cannot afford the steep cost of Affymetrix arrays, to purchase large amounts of pre-made arrays.
“Based on their experience, I think [Corning] will be able to make a quantity of arrays, and through automation, will be able to make the price more acceptable to end users,” said Leming Shi, a senior research scientist who does cDNA microarraying at New Jersey based chemical giant BASF.
While cDNAs offer the advantage of individual customization, they also require labs to pay staff just to run the array experiments. With the introduction of mass-produced low cost arrays like Corning’s, Shi said, “I believe [the] price will be going down dramatically.”