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Invitrogen, Building Dx Play, Welcomes Competition from Emerging Rivals

CHICAGO, April 11 (GenomeWeb News) - Invitrogen, aiming to expand into the molecular diagnostics market, "welcomes" existing and impending competition from small, private shops, a company official said yesterday at BIO 2006, held here this week.


Todd Nelson, vice president of corporate development at the life sciences powerhouse, said during a molecular diagnostics session that these companies will eventually become "collaboration" opportunities for Invitrogen, which has grown in size and scope in recent years by adhering to a diet of steady acquisitions.


Nelson, a session panelist, said he is "thrilled" that privately held companies have been developing technologies to play in a space for which Invitrogen is gunning. Specifically, he said he is glad that as these companies grow, they are transferring the "burden" of risk to venture capital companies --- and presumably off of potential suitors --- which will enable them to develop a wide array of diagnostic technology.


When these technologies are developed, Nelson said, "we can start collaborating with them."


In fact, Invitrogen disclosed one such collaboration today, a deal with Germany's Signalomics to develop nanocrystal reagents to identify tumors in vivo in patient tissue. The agreement continues a joint development program between Signalomics and the BioPixels business unit of BioCrystal, which Invitrogen acquired in October 2005.


Nelson made his remarks after Jorge Leon, president of the consultancy Leomics Associates and acting chief scientific officer of Orion Genomics, remarked to the panel that many startup companies --- he singled out Orion Genomics and three others --- are eating into the molecular diagnostics market. Leon, who identified himself as a diagnostics consultant, then asked what companies like Invitrogen and Roche Diagnostics, represented on the panel by Chris Meda, vice president of business development, are doing about it.


"We welcome" these companies, said Nelson. Meda agreed.


To be sure, Nelson's remarks do not necessarily signal that Invitrogen has a molecular diagnostics acquisition in the breech. And though Invitrogen has not disclosed its specific intentions for the market, CEO Greg Lucier has publicly said that the firm has no plans to become a clinical diagnostics company. In the past, he said if Invitrogen wanted to buy a clinical diagnostics business it has the resources to do it, but it has no plans to take the company in that direction. Lucier had also said the company would not buy a contract research organization.


Dx Foundation


Invitrogen's interest in the molecular diagnostics industry has been building over the past couple of years and the company has made a string of acquisitions to bolster that play. In particular, its purchases of Molecular Probes in 2003 and its acquisitions of Dynal, Caltag, and BioSource last year were made with an eye on grabbing a chunk of the molecular diagnostics market.


The firm furthered this goal in January when it realigned its BioDiscovery unit into two divisions, Life Sciences and Enabling Technologies. The Enabling Technologies division, which now primarily targets the research market, will focus on nanotechnology, imaging and microscopy, cell separation and analysis, labeling and detection, bead-based separations, and the firm's antibody center of excellence. Invitrogen said this division will include its Molecular Probes, Dynal, BioSource, and Quantum Dot products --- all of which Invitrogen acquired over the past two years.

At the time, Lucier said, "If you look at the capabilities in that business, it's really set up for broader applications," and cited molecular diagnostics as a field that would be served by the technologies that have been placed together in that division.


The realignment occurred after Invitrogen penned a pair of high-profile biomarker-discovery pacts last year with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Mayo Clinic. Invitrogen did not outline its specific objectives for these alliances, saying only that they will help the company adopt a "patient-centric" view, in the words of David Odelson, Invitrogen's director of corporate development, according to GenomeWeb News sister publication BioCommerce Week.

In a separate interview with BioCommerce Week at the time, Claude Benchimol, Invitrogen's senior vice president of research and development, said the firm hopes to expand its presence in the clinical market --- a strategy that included the creation of a corporate research laboratory.

"We want to become more medically relevant and closer to our customers," Benchimol had said. "We want to engage in collaboration with academic and research institutions, as well as other customers to help solve big problems."


Though Invitrogen remains tight-lipped about its molecular diagnostics plans, Nelson, the corporate development VP, said at BIO 2006 today that one area of interest for the company could be "enabling" pharmaceutical companies that want to partner with diagnostic shops to develop companion drug-diagnostic products, or so-called theranostics. According to Nelson, this is an area of "exceptional growth."


Another hint of the company's interest in molecular diagnostics could be gauged from the fact that three out of the seven sessions at BIO in which Invitrogen was slated to participate focused on diagnostics (the others comprised two for stem cell medicine, and one each for translational medicine and general drug discovery and development).


Nelson also said the company plans to launch its CISH (chromogenic in situ hybridization technology) pathology products, which it inherited from Zymed after acquiring the company in January 2005 for $60 million. He did not say when the company will roll out the line.


In the end, Nelson's answer to Leon's question during the BIO session might encourage privately held diagnostics companies to continue developing their technologies, and embolden venture capitalists to invest more in these small shops. According to some insiders, the industry could use a kick in the pants.


"Diagnostics in the 20th century [were] embarrassingly bad," John Ioannidis, a professor at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece, said during a session at Cambridge Healthtech's Molecular Medicine Tri-Conference in San Franciscoin February. "I think the tests we have available show poor performance; they don't provide useful information in the clinical setting. For most diseases we are almost at a loss."


Orion Genomics' Leonadded at that conference that, in particular, "the cancer diagnostic market is really pathetic."


An Invitrogen spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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