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Looking to Reel in Customers for APG s Platform, ABI Plans to Offer Early-Access Sequencing Services

Applied Biosystems last week said it wants to offer early-access DNA sequencing services based on Agencourt Personal Genomics' new platform by the end of the year as the company looks to gain a foothold in the next-generation sequencing technology market.

Last week, ABI said that it would acquire the Agencourt Bioscience subsidiary from Beckman Coulter and other shareholders for approximately $120 million in cash (see BioCommerce Week 5/31/2006). The deal comes around eight months after ABI bought an undisclosed stake in sequencing startup VisiGen Biotechnologies, and it is the latest step in ABI's evolving strategy for the next-generation sequencing platforms.

This week the firm detailed its plans for launching the APG instrument and getting it into the hands of "key" researchers. Those plans include offering early-access sequencing services to certain users by the end of the year, followed by early-access instrument placements sometime in 2007, said Kevin Corcoran, vice president and general manager of ABI's genetic analysis business, in an interview with BioCommerce Week sister publication GenomeWeb News.

After the early-access placements, ABI plans to enter the market with a "very robust instrument and reagents." The price for the instrument will be "competitive" with ABI's 3730XL capillary electrophoresis sequencer, the high-end version of which lists for $365,000.

The APG instrument will compete with several other efforts from start-up rivals including 454 Life Sciences, Solexa, Helicos BioSciences, Pacific Biosciences, Microchip Biotechnologies, AQI Sciences, GenoVoxx, and VisiGen Biotechnologies — each looking to stake an early lead in the next-generation sequencing market.

Thus far, 454 is the only firm out of the bunch to sell its instrument, while Solexa hopes to commercialize its platform within the next few months. The others are in various stages of development, with Helicos recently telling BioCommerce Week sister publication Genome Technology that it plans to begin marketing its sequencer in 2007.

ABI will market the instrument for different applications, the two most important ones being high-throughput sequencing and gene expression analysis, according to Corcoran.

On the bioinformatics side, ABI said it plans to integrate the software to analyze data from its CE sequencing instruments and from APG's platform. "Integrating those two datasets is going to be ultimately what gives people the highest level of performance," Corcoran said.

In addition, the company plans to make the software for the new instrument an open system "from day one" so that third parties can add to it, Corcoran said. For example, he said, users of existing ABI sequencers have long been asking for access to the file formats and the company is "actively working on" opening the software of its CE sequencers, he said.

ABI said it plans to retain APG's group of about 20 scientists, who will remain in the company's Beverly, Mass., headquarters and closely collaborate with the ABI R&D team in Foster City, Calif. More staff would be added "as needed" on either coast, according to Corcoran. "It doesn't hurt having things in two different time zones to sort of swing-shift the R&D," McKernan said, adding that the teams would "get three more hours out of our days."

But the APG acquisition is not ABI's last word in its pursuit of next-generation sequencing technologies. The company is doing internal research and looking to invest externally into so-called real-time single-molecule sequencing technologies that produce read lengths in excess of 500 bases.

"That drove our investment in VisiGen" last year, Corcoran said, a platform ABI is still very interested in. These technologies — which include, for example, nanopore sequencing and zero-mode waveguide sequencing, according to Corcoran — are "probably seven to eight years out," he added.

ABI evaluated more than 40 sequencing technologies both from private companies and from academic labs before settling on APG. According to Corcoran, the company assessed these platforms by comparing total throughput, scalability, data quality, read length, cost per finished base, number of possible applications, and commercial feasibility.

Some technologies dropped out because they were not yet developed far enough. "If it looks great but it requires three miracles to be pulled off before you can use that technology, that's something you want to stay away from," Corcoran said.

After ranking the technologies, APG came out on top. "We felt that it scored the highest in most of these particular areas," Corcoran said.

Another potential advantage APG had was the longstanding relationship its parent has had with ABI: Agencourt Bioscience's sequencing center, which provides sequencing, SNP discovery, and library construction services, owns 31 ABI 3730XL sequencers. The sequencing service business, which is not part of APG, will remain with Beckman.

"Agencourt Bioscience is a very good customer of ours," said Corcoran, and ABI has been aware of APG's work on next-generation sequencing for a long time.

— Julia Karow ([email protected])