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Agilent s Fran DiNuzzo on Arrays and the Integrated Biology Business

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At A Glance

Fran DiNuzzo, Agilent Vice President and General Manager, Integrated Biology Solutions

Work Experience: DiNuzzo joined HP/Agilent in 1981 as an R&D project manager in the Avondale (Pennsylvania) Division and over the past 20 years has held several senior R&D, manufacturing and marketing management positions.

Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of New Hampshire.

 

Fran DiNuzzo was named as the head of Agilent Technologies’ Integrated Business Solutions unit in March, reporting to Chris van Ingen, the president and general manager of the company’s life sciences and chemical analysis business group.

DiNuzzo, a 23-year veteran of first Hewlett-Packard and its spinoff Agilent, is based out of Agilent’s Delaware facilities, but now spends considerable time in California, managing the business unit that integrates the company’s gene expression, proteomics, and reagents business.

BioArray News caught up with DiNuzzo this week to follow up the company’s earnings announcement (see page 1) and to talk about the company’s microarray business.

In the conference call, Agilent said gene expression platform orders were up 29 percent for the just-completed quarter. What does Agilent consider a platform? Is it the scanners, chips, and reagents?

A platform is all of the collections of platforms, arrays, scanners, and bioreagents directed to the gene expression marketplace. Each is considered a platform. And all did actually show nice growth. We had a strong double-digit growth rate ahead of the industry.

What do you consider the industry?

There are a few key players. Affymetrix is the dominant array supplier, and there are reagent suppliers that we are using as a proxy for the gene expression industry today.

In the past, Agilent has claimed a customer base of 400 customers for its gene-expression products. Has that number changed?

We are not at the point where we can share our fresh customers, but it has exceeded 400 customers. We are adding new customers to our base on a monthly basis. That is driven by customers looking for a more sensitive platform, and customers migrating from self-spotting.

Do you see this conversion of the self-spotters as any kind of trend away from the so-called home brew market?

I don’t think it is the beginning of a trend. There have been a lot of people doing self-spotting who have moved to microarray platforms. But there are a large number of people who are still in self-spotting for a variety of reasons, whether that is content-driven, or because of specific consideration of what they want on an array. As we move forward, with the ease [that] we can create custom arrays, we find people who are home-spotting would like to have printed what they want on an array, and to be able to do so on a commercial basis. We expect that trend to continue. But the impact isn’t that big at this point.

What do you see as drivers for gene-expression growth?

Those who are home-spotting today, when they know they have access to commercial arrays printed as they want, will want to move. We will have to demonstrate a high quality at the right cost. Each day, new uses are identified for gene expression arrays in various areas of life sciences. The more scientists are learning, the more ideas they are generating that they would like to explore in gene expression. There are lots of opportunities and lots of markets starting to appear where arrays will play a part.

How is pharma approaching your products?

We have some pharmaceutical customers who have adopted us as their primary arrays, and some who are looking at us as second suppliers. There are some biotechnology [and] pharmaceutical customers and large consortiums that are using our platform for particular experiments requiring high sensitivity. I’m not ready to disclose the specifics where our sales are coming from.

What gene expression products had an impact last quarter?

There were three products that I would call out.

The first was the whole-genome microarray with a nice uptake by our customers. They are making good use of it, and getting good results. And, there are two key reagents products. Our RNA isolation reagent, a new product, and our low input RNA kit. That is really critical. More and more customers are starting off with very precious samples where the volume is restricted. There is good uptake on that.

In terms of the single-chip whole-human-genome product, what are the business tradeoffs from selling one slide where before it was two?

The costs of the products are not identical. And, there is a reasonable transition from one to the other, so it’s not simply the same cost. The challenge for us is getting more customers to use the whole-genome array, and create the situation where customers are looking for more and more applications where the arrays are useful. We have talked to customers [about offering] subsets of the genome. Would that be of more use? Many customers tell us they are still looking to run the whole-genome array. Over time, we expect that as we get more specific about what in the genome we want to look at that things will head in that direction. We already have the ability to print an array to any specification that the customer has. That custom business is doing pretty well. There are several researchers that have worked with us, some government accounts, and academic groups, that in time, [with] the research [they are] doing, they will want to make available to the community. Today, that collaborative work could turn into catalog arrays. That’s the nice part about the technology, we have to print the array to a customer’s configuration. We could do that for others if given access to the intellectual property.

What do you see as the challenges for this quarter?

The challenge continues to be one [of] making sure that the content is right, that we are creating end-to-end solutions, and identifying where the challenges are in sample preparation and management of the information that is created and looking at new applications. One of those is comparative genomic hybridization. We are looking at the challenges of that vs. RNA. We have done some collaborative work with researchers in an active engagement we have. We are excited about the results.

Your job title goes beyond microarrays. Could you tell me what your goals are?

Our goal inside this business is to take our strength in gene expression, the work in proteomics with mass spectrometry, with bioreagents, and microfluidics, and advance those sciences to be best in class and understand how researchers are beginning to combine and make those links.

One of our partners is Dharmacon, which is working with siRNA. They are using Agilent arrays to validate the effect of siRNAs. As researchers identify the genes related to conditions, they are looking for ways to knock down those genes. Then they will want to understand the pathways, the proteins that are changed in diseased cells. Eventually they get to proteomics. We believe what is happening is that the study of genes and proteins and metabolites, while separated, are moving together. Scientists will connect information and data, and will eventually start to look at things in a more systemic way. Being in gene expression and proteomics and having the technology, we think we can help the scientists.

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