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Agilent s Barney Saunders on Entering the Great Array Race

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AT A GLANCE

• Barney Saunders, vice president and general manager, Agilent Technologies, BioResearch Solutions. Joined the company in 2000.
• Previously, director of the microarrays, AP Biotech (Molecular Dynamics branch).
• 1987 — PhD, University of Birmingham, UK.
• 1984 — BsC, biology, University of Birmingham, UK.

Agilent Technologies on Monday threw its 1x3-format microarray into the ring, joining Applied Biosystems and NimbleGen in a race to produce, at an industrial scale, and sell a whole-human-genome single microarray. Agilent is the microarray industry’s No. 2 manufacturer, having entered the arena in 2001 with ink-jet printing technology and a core competence in instrument manufacture, as well as microarray licenses from Incyte.

Barney Saunders, vice president and general manager for Agilent’s BioResearch Solutions unit, spoke with BioArray News this week to give detail on the company’s product, and its reasons for entering the race so quickly after introducing a two-chip set containing the whole human genome earlier this summer.

Why is the single whole-human-genome microarray important?

For a screening tool, you really want to screen all of the key genes in an organism on one chip. That’s a consistent message from customers. And, it’s been clear for some time that the customers want to put one sample on one array. We have been working on that for over a year, printing microarrays and using them all in-house. The printing has gone well and we have gotten good results.

When you move from multiple arrays for a genome, and the first is the human genome, you need to make sure that the performance meets the customer’s expectations — sensitivity and selectivity are the key. We have already made a number of moves in the platform. Thinking forward to the launch of the new product, our feature extraction software is enabled for the new arrays. We have been working hard to make sure that we don’t sacrifice any of the performance as we move to a more dense array that can be used on our open platform.

Can you tell me how this array has been managed toward commercialization?

To design a product like this takes all parts of an organization — the R&D team, the designers of the content, and the rich, deep competence that we have in printing. The technology was initially seeded at Agilent Labs in Deer Creek, near Palo Alto. The next part is making sure you can print high-quality products, and have the manufacturing execution in place for order fulfillment as well as preparing new quality tests for the product.

We have a monthly overall meeting where we review all of the key projects that take place — research and development, quality assurance, and order fulfillment [Agilent’s term for manufacturing] as well as the marketing department.

[What we call] the double-density project, as an overall team, has been represented every month in this overall meeting, as well as every stakeholder in what is a very complex project. We also have a project management structure, and a team leader who leads the overall project and makes sure the right skills and resources are in there. That person comes back to us regularly. We also have project meetings with 30 people in a room once a month to share the project and brainstorm it. It is a system approach: The chemistries are there, the scanner and feature extraction people are there.

Why did Agilent call this the double-density project?

It’s called double density because we have changed the way that the features are packed on a microarray. Our standard is 22,000 features, but we will print 44,000 features, which will give us more than 36,000 genes and transcripts. We have been aware that you can print double density, but it’s a very substantial task indeed. Our first task was to launch 60-mer oligo arrays. That has been foundational to developing the double density. The Human 1 and 2 arrays were for getting that part right, enabling a flexible manufacturing process, and then populating a single array.

Another key point for us, of course, is that the genome evolves very quickly, and so does our understanding of what is a gene and a transcript. We want to update on a regular basis and keep the designs up to date.

Who is going to buy them?

The target market are the people in centers of excellence in academia who print and buy our existing arrays and pharma, where sensitivity and performance are compelling. It’s a wide audience
of people.

Can you talk about the pricing of the product? After all, customers get one array where before
they got two.

It would seem reasonable to offer customers some benefits from that move. We haven’t decided the final price of the product, and there have been active discussions about it, as you might imagine. It will be very competitively priced.

What is your opinion of ABI?

They bought many of our arrays in the past and have been using our 60-mers, so we are delighted to see another player in the industry. We have a high regard for ABI. Over the years, Mike [Hunkapillar] has done a superlative job of leading that organization. I welcome open competition in the marketplace, where customers are able to compare the performance of the arrays.

How do the products compare, from what you have seen, or read, to this point?

From a positioning standpoint, it is quite a different product, addressing slightly different needs in the industry. They should be able to produce standard catalog [arrays] for the major species. But it is a closed platform. With our open platform and the large installed base of 1x3 scanners in the marketplace today, we can develop new content all the time.

Has the competitive metabolism in the industry risen?

For Agilent, it hasn’t, in terms of making the schedule more aggressive. It is well planned and tightly managed and we will now execute against that plan. To change it now would be a big mistake. We want to get a great product out there in a timely way and that is on track.

 

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