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As sequencing settles into its place in the outsourcing world, vendors are casting their nets for tomorrow’s service. If you ask microarray service providers, they say they’ve already found it.

“We see a pretty tremendous demand that seems to be building for services in microarrays,” says Emile Nuwaysir, vice president of business development for NimbleGen. “We generally believe that microarrays are moving to an outsourcing function.”

It’s still a few years out from where outsourcing array projects could be de rigueur, but already array shops are vying for turf. Most are young efforts still gearing up for the real competition they expect in a few years.

Take Expression Analysis, for instance. Based in Durham, NC, it was a former Affymetrix-based array core facility that spun out from Duke University in September 2001. According to COO Steve Casey, “[Duke didn’t] want their valuable people, lab space, and resources being tied up in what would eventually become a commodity.” EA still handles array services for Duke, and uses that as a model for building new relationships. “We’re in conversations with several other cores right now,” says Casey, who argues that if EA could take over their array work, those labs’ resources could be redirected to newer, more cutting-edge technologies.

EA is working overtime to follow the lessons for success established in the sequencing services market. For one thing, Casey says, “we’re going to be the first microarray service provider that is GLP compliant.” He expects that and FDA-quality array work to be a major source of business. Last year, EA ran some 7,000 hybridizations for customers at more than 120 organizations.

Faye O’Brien, senior director of healthcare and marketing at Paradigm Genetics, says her company is also working to build procedures for handling pharmaceutical data. Paradigm’s service lab began as a result of the company’s $32 million NIEHS contract, which was announced in September 2002 and enabled the company to build up enough infrastructure to satisfy the contract and have plenty of extra to sell to customers.

Paradigm’s claim to fame is that it’s the only lab using both Affymetrix and Agilent platforms. “If someone wants to outsource the Agilent platform, we are the only game in town,” O’Brien says. The facility currently runs several hundred assays per week.

O’Brien sees pharma as a potentially huge source of revenue. “Nearly all drug discovery companies have their own internal facilities for microarrays,” she says. “Based on our experience, most of them have backlogs.” As microarrays expand from preclinical to the clinical trial phase — she expects that to be routine in two to five years — that backlog could grow exponentially, and pharma may find that outsourcing makes more sense. As more brands come into the market (Mitsubishi and Hitachi are waiting in the wings), users might be less interested in choosing a platform and making the investment in a whole facility. When that happens, O’Brien says, Paradigm will be in a position to make the most of it.

Meanwhile, NimbleGen is counting on its own unique proposition that as people care less and less about brand, they’re going to be more willing to try the company’s custom-design arrays and service work. “We’re the only company that can give you high density and long oligo [formats] together,” Nuwaysir says. “We’ve focused on what we believe is a significant need in the market for high-density, high-quality arrays in emerging genomes.”

NimbleGen, which at press time was about to complete its 1,000th custom array design, is gambling that expression data for new genomes will see increasing demand. For four projects in the works, Nuwaysir says, NimbleGen got through the expression data work so quickly that it will likely be published simultaneously with the sequence data.

Each of these companies is bracing for an onslaught of competitors in the coming years. “The way we’re setting up the organization is patiently,” Casey says. “The outsource market is going to grow. At some point in time, the light switch will go on.”

 

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