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With 9 Million War Chest, MolTools Seeks to Improved Exisiting Microarray Technologies

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European scientists are hoping to catch up with the US in developing — and bringing to market — new microarray technology.

With €9 million ($10.9 million) in funding over three years from the European Union, MolTools, a consortium of 15 academic institutes and companies from 10 European countries, plans to advance microarray tools for the analysis of genomes, transcriptomes, proteomes, single molecules, and cells (see www.moltools.org).

“A lot of this technology had its origins in Europe,” said Ulf Landegren, a professor in the department of genetics and pathology at Uppsala University in Sweden, who coordinates the project. “But there is some disappointment that we have not been very effective in launching [this], either academically or commercially, in Europe,” he said. “The commercial exploitation of these technologies has taken place mostly in the United States.”

MolTools is hoping to change this. For a start, the consortium boasts some well-known names in the field, such as Ed Southern of OGT, Joerg Höheisel at DKFZ in Heidelberg, and Hans Lehrach at MPI in Berlin. On the company side, Febit of Germany, Methexis Genomics of Belgium, UK-based OGT, Swedish Åmic, and Fermentas of Lithuania participate. Harvard’s George Church participates, but as a sub-contractor, to comply with EU funding rules.

“The track record is pretty good,” Landegren said. “So by ganging up and working together, we hope that we will be able to more effectively develop new tools.”

Through various collaborations, the consortium plans to develop new tools for resequencing, genotyping, protein analysis, gene expression analysis, single-cell analysis, and cell-based arrays. Some of the technologies will use mass spectrometry instead of microarrays as their platform.

Despite the numerous companies crowding the industry, “I think there is room for tremendous improvement for microarray technologies,” Landegren said. For example, the researchers will try to lower the cost for resequencing arrays and SNP genotyping, which “remains too costly to really undertake the whole genome scans that everybody is hoping for,” he said. Protein arrays, he added, are “only at inception.”

However, it is unclear yet how new technologies resulting from the project will reach the market. “The goal is to commercialize what we come up with, but the project does not include specific plans for this,” Landegren said. He hopes new startup companies will spring up, or existing companies will take out licenses.

To foster commercial relationships, Landegren plans to engage companies “that are not actually paid for by this program but that get a privileged position in obtaining insight into what is being done.”

Also, the consortium partners will conduct training courses for academic researchers, the first of which will be held in Uppsala in June, entitled “Advanced Techniques in Molecular Medicine.”

Why have European researchers not been successful in commercializing their ideas at home so far? Landegren believes part of the reason is the funding structure in the US makes it easier to raise money for starting a company there.

Landegren started ParAllele Bioscience in California to commercialize a genotyping technology from his lab, “because we had some problems getting it started here in Europe.”

“Maybe it’s easier in Europe to play around and try some different solutions. But once it’s successful, it often gets shipped to the West,” he said.

It remains to see if MolTools can change this pattern.

—JK

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