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Agilent to Debut Automated Liquid-Handling Workflow in Fall, High-Density Expression Chips in 2010

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By Justin Petrone

Continuing to invest in a business that is at the "center of its strategic emphasis," Agilent Technologies plans to launch a number of new array-related products in the coming months.

Agilent will launch an automated liquid-handling workflow by early October, and will add million-feature arrays in its high-density G3 format for expression profiling and location analysis studies within the next six to nine months, according to the firm's array team.

BioArray News met with Agilent representatives during a site visit to the company's Santa Clara, Calif., headquarters last week.

Dione Bailey, product manager of CGH and CNV microarrays, said that the company plans to commercialize the workflow it has developed for high-throughput processing of samples using its comparative genomic hybridization and copy number-variation arrays.

Since March, Agilent has launched three arrays in its G3 format, all targeting customers that wish to expand their association studies of SNPs across populations to CNVs (see BAN 4/7/2009).

Using its Bravo Automated Liquid Handling Platform, which Agilent acquired when it bought the automation company Velocity 11 in 2007, Bailey said customers will now be able to perform labeling, pre-hybridization, and purification steps in a high-throughput manner. The Bravo Platform is powered by VWorks Automation Control software, which lets users generate and modify protocols, she said.

"A lot of customers are ramping in terms of samples, getting optimized performance, and stabilizing their assays," Bailey told BioArray News. She said that the firm's automation protocol is being beta tested at two sites in Europe. A user manual and an application note looking across different array types and sample sets are due by early October.

According to Bailey, the workflow is partially the result of Agilent's work with the Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium. Earlier this year, Oxford Gene Technology, an Agilent-certified service provider, completed processing more than 20,000 WTCCC samples using Agilent's whole-genome human CNV-focused arrays and the Bravo instrument (see BAN 6/2/2009).

According to Bailey, the rollout of the automation workflow will be a "joint venture" between Agilent's array team and its automation business. Bailey said that engineers from the automation business will support the instrumentation, while its array team will help customers with their assays.

While the protocols Agilent plans to launch will be specific for its CGH/CNV arrays, Bailey said the Bravo platform is "designed to be very versatile, and customers can very easily generate protocols for other applications including gene expression, target enrichment, and others."

G3 Arrays on the Way

The first chips Agilent launched in its G3 format earlier this year were intended for CGH and CNV studies. Still, the firm has pledged to make arrays available in the G3 format for other application areas.

Alicia Burt, director of microarray marketing at Agilent, said last week that the company will launch G3 arrays for expression and location analysis, also known as chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) on chip, during the first half of next year.

"We are currently testing both location-analysis and gene-expression arrays in a limited release program," Burt told BioArray News. "We will be phasing SurePrint G3 launches for these applications over the next six to nine months."

What that will mean for Agilent's expression customers, for example, is that rather than ordering its four-array by 44,000 microarrays in the older format, they can now run studies on a new eight-plex, 60,000-feature format.

Prices of the arrays are expected to rise about 20 percent, Burt said, but, given the added content and multiplex capabilities, "gene expression customers will benefit from a lower cost per sample and increased throughput from more arrays per slide."

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'Healthy' Business

According to Gus Salem, vice president and general manager of the biological systems division at Agilent, the company's new products are examples of ongoing investment in its microarray business.

Though he declined to discuss sales figures, Salem told BioArray News that Agilent's microarray business is "profitable and growing at above market rates" largely on the back of its custom array-design capabilities.

"Customization will continue to be the unique differentiator in this marketplace," Salem said. "Why limit the customers' options? Tell us what you want, and we'll create it."

Overall, Salem said that Agilent's arrays are "a very healthy business at the center of our strategic emphasis," citing Agilent's interest in the life sciences market. For instance, the company recently agreed to pay $1.5 billion to acquire Varian, another life sciences company (see BAN 7/28/2009).

"Executive management continues to see life sciences as the growth engine of the company," Salem said. He added that, in addition to new products and instruments, the company is also planning to make investments in sales and support that will benefit its array business, though he declined to elaborate.

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