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Agilent s New Whole-Human-Genome Microarray Set for Commercial Release

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Agilent Technologies on Tuesday announced the global commercial availability of its single-chip, whole-human-genome microarray product, and with it, announced a relaxation of volume purchase commitments for customers in the academic and non-profit sectors.

The company introduced the product in July amidst a series of similar high-profile announcements from Affymetrix, NimbleGen Systems, and Applied Biosystems (see BAN 7/30/2003) as the industry queued up in a race to reach the technical milestone of arraying on a single chip probes for various versions of the known content of the human genome, and then making the chip available on a wide commercial basis.

The milestone of such an array, and the announcements that heralded it, at the time clearly illustrated the dynamics of an extremely competitive environment in a decade-old industry that is poised to reach estimated revenues of $1 billion this year.

Affymetrix, the industry leader, has laid a claim to being first to reach the twin milestones en route to a record year financially (see article below).

Applied Biosystems, which provided technical details of its single-chip, whole-human-genome microarray (see BAN 11/5/2003) in November as part of the introduction of its chemiluminescence-based Expression Analysis System platform for massively parallel gene expression analysis, did not meet its targeted end-of-year commercial launch of the product. But it said last week the product will be available globally in the fiscal fourth quarter of 2004, after an initial commercial introduction in Asia (see story, page 3).

NimbleGen Systems has been offering a single microarray, whole-human-genome product, on a services-only basis since the summer.

Meantime, No. 3 industry player Amersham, which last month received European regulatory clearance for its $9.5 billion merger with General Electric, told BioArray News (see BAN 1/28/2004) that it plans on launching its own CodeLink-brand whole-human-genome, single-microarray product in April.

And, last month, San Diego-based Illumina said that it plans to introduce by mid-year a single chip arrayed with six whole human genomes.

For Agilent, which is regarded as the No. 2 competitor in the pre-printed microarray industry, having sold 100,000 chips last year while claiming a doubling in its customer base to 400, this roll-out announcement comes in advance of the release of second-quarter financial results on Feb. 17.

Erik Bjeldanes, Agilent's product manager for microarray content, told BioArray News that the formal announcement of the commercialization of the product caps months of preparation and work to achieve the coordination within the comp-any required to actually fulfill a customer order.

"I was in scramble mode for the last six weeks," he said. "Now, the pressure is off: The Agilent machine is fully engaged; the product is being distributed globally. All the [commercial] mechanisms are in place. It's very exciting."

Agilent, which entered the microarray arena in 2001, has taken an "open-platform" approach to its microarray product lines, in contrast to industry-leading Affymetrix, whose flagship whole-human-genome, single-microarray product is only readable on the GeneChip 3000 scanner the company launched last year.

Agilent's whole-human-genome product is based on its ink-jet arraying process and is created by printing on one chip the content that it previously deposited on two, and includes areas where customers can add their own content of interest. Affymetrix uses a photolithography process and increased its printing resolution to an 11-micron format concurrent with the announcement of its single-chip, whole-human-genome microarray product line.

Agilent's open platform approach enables small-volume purchases (the minimum order offered is a five-chip "kit"), said Bjeldanes.

"There are many, many buyers in the 1x3 market that are not high-volume purchasers," he said.

But open vs. closed platforms and the nuances of manufacturing technique are only two aspects of the intensely competitive environment in this industry, with players claiming advantages in sensitivity based on the format of their probes. Agilent prints microarrays with oligos of 60-mer lengths, while Affymetrix prints probes of 25-mer lengths. This differentiation has spawned lively and unresolved debate on which format provides optimum sensitivity.

Agilent's commercialization announcement is paired with a second announcement that details for the first time a new application in comparative genomic hybridization for its microarrays in the field of cancer research. This application is to be outlined this week at the 2004 Centro Nacional de Investigacions Oncologias (National Center for Oncological Investigation) Symposium (Feb. 3-6) in Madrid, Spain.

In this instance, microarrays are used to detect the presence or absence of genomic DNA along each chromosome to quantify chromosomal alterations that occur in cancer. At the Madrid symposium, the company and CNIO researchers will present results of studies conducted on the Agilent platform, as well as techniques for analyzing the resulting data, and correlating it to expression levels. The techniques used include taking a first pass in a broad survey of the genome to find the genes expressed, and then following this initial sweep with a second analysis on a custom chip, arrayed with probes to detect aberrations in the chromosomal regions.

Additionally, the company said that Ana Dopazo, a researcher with CNIO who is an Agilent customer and research collaborator, will give a workshop presentation on a study comparing 25-mer and 60-mer probes in the detection of low-expressing colon cancer genes.

-- MOK

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