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Microarrays Nimblegen, Unmasked

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If arraymaker startup NimbleGen has cause to party in upcoming months, don’t expect it to be a masquerade. Founded two years ago, the Madison, Wis.-based company markets custom DNA arrays based on its Maskless Array Synthesizer.

According to CEO Mike Treble, NimbleGen’s photolithography process eliminates the need for chromium masks to produce oligos. Instead, with digital light processors developed by Texas Instruments, “we build our oligonucleotide bases by photodeprotecting each base by shining a light on it, and then only attaching a new base when the previous base has been deprotected,” Treble says. A computer monitors the process, making it highly controlled and low-labor, reducing the cost of production.

With $26.5 million in its coffers so far and a staff that’s grown from five to 30, Treble believes NimbleGen is well positioned for a future in the array market. The company’s now offering custom arrays (he expects sales to begin by the end of this year) and plans eventually to offer its array synthesizer in benchtop form.

Part of the company’s feeling of security lies in its post-state-of-the-art density. According to Treble, NimbleGen’s process can spot up to 780,000 oligos on a glass slide. The problem is that scanners aren’t sensitive enough to read so many yet. “So as the market for scanners grows and their sensitivity improves, we can expand the density of our measurements,” he says. In the meantime, the process can be adapted for just about any generic scanner, letting the sensitivity level dictate the oligo density. “We can meet whatever the customers’ current scanner and bioinformatics capabilities are right now,” Treble says, “without them having to acquire capital equipment to use our arrays.”

The technology is currently in beta with some academic groups and a few pharmas. The custom arrays will have a controlled release — because, Treble says, the demand they see is more than the company can fill and “we don’t want to create negative or false expectations.”

— Meredith Salisbury

 

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