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ABI Hopes to Challenge Affy Via Service Provider Labs, Though Partners Could Benefit in the End


At one time, Applied Biosystems boasted a loosely organized group of core labs and companies that offered its Expression Array System to researchers worldwide. Now, ABI has expanded this service program to include 11 authorized providers in 10 different countries, a move that could enable it to challenge Affymetrix in the microarray market.

Last week ABI said the 11 partners now offer its gene expression tools and services, including microarrays for human, mouse, and rat genes. As part of the program, ABI will also expand the technical support that is available to the select service providers. The program will also enable the partners and their customers to validate data from the array platform using ABI's TaqMan gene expression assays and real-time PCR systems.

The expansion could enable ABI to compete more directly with Affymetrix, whose own service provider program comprises at least 28 participants. Many of the 11 service providers named last week have also been offering Affymetrix chips for years. However, the service providers themselves insist that the agreement means more business for them because ABI will be giving them more support and because the platforms attract different kinds of users.

"I am looking at this as kind of an advance access to AB scientists and informaticians to make the best use of its platform," said Andrew Brooks, who heads the Bionomics Research and Technology Center at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and Rutgers University, one of the 11 centers in the program.

"They are going to be able to provide support not only to us as a facility with respect to development of new technologies for the platform's analytical tools, but also they're going to provide a [greater] level of support to the people that utilize the technology through that service facility."

"I don't believe that it will sweep the Affy technology from the market, but it will definitely stimulate the market again."

Tom Weaver, CEO of UK-based Geneservice, another of the 11 partners, told BioArray News in an e-mail this week that his company has been offering contract research services on the ABI platform since 2004, but that involvement in the new program will help Geneservice "strengthen [its] market position as a contract research provider in the UK and Ireland."

"This is a great opportunity for us to widen our customer base through co-marketing with Applied Biosystems," Weaver said.

Why Now?

According to Roland Wicki, product director of ABI's Expression Array System, the company decided to expand the service provider program mainly due to customer demand.

"In the last few months, we have seen a growing demand from service providers [both] wanting to offer an alternative platform to their clients, as well as increased demand from clinical researchers to access … comprehensive gene content and increased sensitivity," Wicki told BioArray News in an e-mail this week.

More specifically Wicki said that ABI sensed an opportunity to "work with these service providers to increase their return on investment while at the same time create awareness and references for our young system." ABI launched the Expression Array System in 2003 (see BAN 7/30/2003).

He also said that ABI may find a niche in the market for "customers who have a limited number of projects and also a limited capital budget." He said ABI's system was particularly suited for biomarker discovery.

However, several of the centers that recently joined ABI's program also offer Affy's platform. For example, both the Rutgers lab and Geneservice have been offering both systems for years. But Brooks said that rather than having existing users make the decision to move to ABI's platform, the agreement could lure new customers to his center because ABI users are often involved in different research than Affy users.

In particular, Brooks said that ABI users are interested in "more mechanistic questions" and are drawn to ABI's platform because of its annotations. He also said that customers who have a lot of experience using ABI's TaqMan assays feel comfortable using the Expression Analysis System because of the "correlation in the data that's generated."

Mirko Vanetti, who heads Heidelberg, Germany-based IMGM Laboratories, a member of the new service providers program, also said that ABI's platform is useful for specific research needs. "It [is] particularly well suited for researchers interested in identifying singular genes involved in biological processes, [for example] for target discovery," Vanetti said.

Vanetti's lab has been involved in a project to validate signatures for Alzheimer's disease developed by DiaGenic on ABI's platform (see Briefs). IMGM does not offer services based on the Affymetrix GeneChip platform.

Complementary Platforms?

Another service provider whose lab uses both ABI and Affy is the Vanderbilt Shared Microarray Resource at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. According to Shawn Levy, the director of the resource, "Affy customers are somewhat different than ABI customers." Levy said that his lab is assembling data on what kinds of projects are initiated on the different platforms and that he should have more concrete data on the split in the user community soon. He declined to comment further on how they differ.

However, Levy did say that rather than choosing one over the other, Vanderbilt has found "great value in using both platforms." Levy gave the example that a user that identifies a gene signature on one platform may want to use another platform that differs in detection (ABI uses chemiluminescence, Affy uses fluorescence) and probe design to verify the pattern from a systems perspective while avoiding systematic bias inherent in the technology.

"Our choice of the two platforms to offer, Affymetrix and AB, speaks for itself," added Geneservice's Weaver. "Although the overlap between the platforms is certainly big, in some aspects they complement one another."

Currently, ABI offers human, rat, and mouse whole-genome chips on the Expression Array System, while Affy's portfolio includes dozens of species-specific chips as well as tiling arrays, exon arrays, and mapping arrays.

Christian Guelly, the director of the Center for Medical Research at the Medical University of Graz, Austria, said that his center has been using ABI's platform for approximately one year and that it also offers the Affymetrix platform.

Guelly said that he'd recommend Affymetrix to users that are working in a field where data from Affy users already exists. "That's the interestingly more recommended, conservative approach," he told BioArray News via e-mail last week.

Still he said that ABI's status as a relative newcomer in the market could boost interest in the platform in his lab and "may offer insights for … users to find something new."

ABI's Advanced Gene Expression
Service Provider Program Roster
Bionomics Research and Technology Center at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey
and Rutgers University (Piscataway, NJ)
Geneservice Ltd. (Cambridge, UK)
Genome Express (Meylan, France)
IMGM Laboratories (Martinsried, Germany)
Labindia (Thane, India)
Macrogen (Seoul, South Korea)
Center for Medical Research, Medical University of Graz (Graz, Austria)
Ming Shin Biotech (Taipei, Taiwan)
Trinity College Dublin (Dublin, Ireland)
Norwegian Microarray Consortium, University of Bergen (Bergen, Norway)
Vanderbilt Shared Microarray Resource (Nashville, Tenn.).

"I don't believe that it will sweep the Affy technology from the market, but it will definitely stimulate the market again," Guelly said.

Although most service providers in ABI's program said the companies' platforms are too different to do a straightforward comparison, there is one area in which ABI may gain a competitive foothold: price.

According to Vanderbilt's Levy, users may be drawn to ABI's platform because its arrays are cheaper in his lab. "The ABI arrays are less expensive than the Affy arrays by a significant margin • about 25 percent in our lab," Levy said.

Rutgers' Brooks agreed that ABI's arrays are competitively priced, but said that that pricing for the two platforms in his lab is "close enough that the price does not factor into the decision."

"It's more of a technical and scientific decision," Brooks said.

Affymetrix did not return a phone call seeking comment on pricing. A spokesperson for ABI said that the company would not discuss pricing but that "typically it is based on the needs of the provider."

• Justin Petrone ([email protected])

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