Six months after being acquired by GE Healthcare for $713 million, Whatman has debuted new microarray products, revamped how it manufactures its slides, and has begun taking advantage of GE’s sales and marketing muscle.
Michael Harvey, a principal scientist at Whatman, told BioArray News that undisclosed investments from its new parent company have enabled Whatman to develop instruments to automate its slide-manufacturing process. The company has also introduced FAST Quant 40, an array-based research tool that measures the concentration of 40 different cytokines in a sample.
“The decision has been to move forward with the slides and to offer new offerings in terms of the array business,” Harvey said. “We have invested a lot in the manufacturing. So far GE has been very supportive; they have provided the marketing and sales resources and invested in manufacturing.”
Whatman’s slide business, centered around its line of nitrocellulose-coated FAST slides for protein array applications, was originally developed at Dassel, Germany-based Schleicher & Schuell Bioscience, which London-based Whatman acquired in 2004 for $65 million (see BAN 11/10/2004).
Schleicher & Schuell also developed a line of focused protein arrays, including a Serum Biomarker Chip for cancer-related biomarker screening, and the CombiChip, which was designed to screen markers related to autoimmune diseases. The CombiChip received a CE marking as an in vitro diagnostic in September 2006 (see BAN 9/26/2006).
Five months later, GE Healthcare announced its intention to acquire Whatman for £363 million ($713 million at the time) and closed the deal at the end of April (see BAN 2/5/2008, BAN 4/29/2008). Since then, Whatman has put in place a new slide-manufacturing process at its facility in Sanford, Maine, which Harvey said will help the company retain its position in the competitive market for microarray slides.
“We began developing FAST slides in 2000 and we put in place a process that was manually intensive,” Harvey said. “It required operators that needed to be trained and so on. I think that anyone that’s developed processes knows that those kinds of things can be problems as you look to the future, because if you lose people you lose the skills.”
Now, the company has developed a partly automated system to create slides that are “more consistent than the original process could provide.” Harvey said that the new manufacturing hub came online last month and has been validated to manufacture Whatman’s entire menu of FAST slides.
“It minimizes operator intervention during the process, and minimizes operator inspection of the process,” he said, adding that, in the future, the company plans to add an image-analysis system to the platform.
“We are no different than we were a year ago.”
Harvey said that Whatman’s manufacturing upgrade is symbolic of the firm’s commitment to the homebrew array market. While that segment of DNA array market continues to shrink as more academics take advantage of lower-cost arrays, the protein array market, by comparison, is expanding on the back of new array slides and spotters, such as those sold by Whatman, he said
Whatman’s nitrocellulose-coated FAST slides directly compete against products sold by Schott-Nexterion, which sells the Nexterion Slide NC; Gentel Biosciences, which sells PATH and PATHplus microarray slides; and Grace Bio-Labs, which sells its nitrocellulose-coated Oncyte slides.
“There are other companies that make nitrocellulose-coated slides,” Harvey said. “Obviously other people wouldn’t be making those slides if the business wasn’t growing.”
Alistair Rees, microarray product manager at Schott, told BioArray News this week that the “majority of all the new sales enquiries” the company receives are for protein array applications. “There is a lot of interest in both our nitrocellulose product range and our other three-dimensional, polymer-based slides for these applications,” he said.
Rees added that the “fastest growing sections of the protein microarray market” are reverse cell lysate applications. “We are also seeing rapid growth in the related areas of glycoprotein, lectin, and carbohydrate arrays,” he said.
FAST Quant 40
In addition to its manufacturing upgrade, Whatman has debuted FAST Quant 40, which comprise two microarrays on the same FAST slide that measure 40 different human cytokines. Previous Whatman kits, such as its Human Th1/Th2 FAST Quant Kit for cytokine quantitation, enabled researchers to measure concentrations of between eight and 10 human or mouse cytokines in one assay.
This FAST Quant kit combines the 40 most-requested human cytokines in one kit, allowing users to analyze relationships that were believed to be too impractical to explore, according to Harvey. The 40 analytes are divided into two sub-arrays of individual cytokine-specific antibodies, spotted in triplicate. Each slide contains eight pads arrayed with sub-array A and eight pads with sub-array B.
“This is a product based on input from our sales staff … [and on] on feedback from our service business,” Harvey said.
Whatman has also expanded the multiplexing capabilities of its slides. “From a single kit, we now get around 950 distinct analyte determinations, whereas with the [Human Th1/Th2 FAST Quant Kit for cytokine quantitation] you get about half of that. So this is more powerful from the multiplexing standpoint,” he said.
Researchers analyze results from the FAST Quant 40 using a customized version of the MicroVigene software platform, which Whatman and Carlisle, Mass.-based VigeneTech began developing in June (see BAN 6/7/2008).
Harvey said that FAST Quant 40 is marketed to a variety of users. “We have academic customers; we have people doing pre-clinical studies, disease-state work because cytokines are involved in all kinds of inflammatory conditions,” he said. “We really have a big mix; we get academics, people from biotech companies and diagnostics companies.”
While Whatman’s array business has benefited from GE’s investments in manufacturing, and has enabled the vendor to flesh out its sales and marketing resources, Harvey said that, six months in, the company has “remained relatively separate” from its parent.
Harvey said GE has been “enthusiastic” about maintaining Whatman’s business as it becomes integrated into the company. “The Whatman brand remains alive and we are a profit and loss operation,” he said. “We are no different than we were a year ago, from a business-functioning standpoint and a development-functioning standpoint.”
He added that the company has had “all kinds of contacts” within GE. “They have a central research facility and we have conversations with them and are working with development groups from within GE Healthcare. The marketing people are looking to bundle products,” Harvey said. “So yes, we are integrating.”
GE has acquired a number of companies and businesses over the past few years that play in the genomic- and proteomic-analysis tools market. For instance, GE acquired the CodeLink bioarray business and Amersham Bioscience in 2004. It sold the array business and CodeLink assets to Applied Microarrays last year but held on to the CodeLink activated microarray slides. But last month, GE sold the CodeLink activated slide business to SurModics (see BAN 5/8/2007, BAN 10/7/2008).
And in 2006, GE spent$390 million to acquire Uppsala, Sweden-based Biacore, which makes tools for protein research and analysis (see BAN 6/20/2006).