Last week was awards week for Affymetrix CEO Stephen Fodor. The first good news came from Japan: last Tuesday, the Takeda Foundation announced that it had jointly awarded this year’s prize for techno-entrepreneurial achievements in the category “individual/humanity well-being,” or life sciences, to Fodor, along with Pat Brown at Stanford, for the development and promotion of DNA microarrays. Then two days later, Fodor received the Innovator Award in nanotechnology from The Economist for essentially the same thing, “the invention and development of high-density DNA microarray technology,”— this time all by himself.
BioArray News caught up with the co-founder of Affymetrix last week to talk about the beginnings of the company and where he sees the industry headed.
When Fodor started at Affymax in the late 1980s after a postdoc at Berkeley, he remembered, high-density microarrays, scanners, or analysis software simply didn’t exist and “the initial years were spent developing out those fundamental technologies.” By 1993, Affymetrix was born to concentrate solely on building DNA microarrays. The first chips, bearing about 16,000 probes each, were shipped out in 1994 — a far cry from today’s arrays, that carry up to 500,000 probes each. “That pushing towards higher and higher information density is going to be a continued theme,” Fodor predicted — at least within his company.
This rapid development, according to Fodor, was fostered by the commercial setting he chose. “You get a commitment of funds, a commitment of investors, and you have an obligation, once you set off that track, to make products and ship them out,” he said. “There is a tremendous continuity that you get, and a purpose, in that sort of environment.”
However, both Fodor and Brown are being honored not only for the development of microarrays, but also for the “promotion of the technology.” In the case of Brown, the Takeda Foundation states, that occured “by releasing the production methods on the internet,” in Fodor’s instance, “by commercialization of the GeneChip array.”
The two scientists will receive ¥ 50 million each, or about $405,000, in prize money during the award ceremony in Tokyo in November. Though he has not thought about how best to convert the money into dollars yet, Fodor has already decided to use it to “set up some scholarship funds in the biological and technical sciences,” for example for grad students or even “younger kids.” “I think a lot about the grants that I received in the past,” Fodor said. “They create some independence in the academic career of young people.”
One of the next frontiers for these young scientists might be to use arrays in new ways, and Affymetrix is already exploring the next generation arrays to study the “transcriptome,” in a collaboration with the NCI. “If you take a totally unbiased view of the genome, …there is a tremendous amount of transcription going on that has been previously not well appreciated,” said Fodor. The other area where microarrays may play, he mentioned, is in the study of DNA variation between individuals, currently undertaken by Affy’s spinoff Perlegen (see p.2). “You will begin to look more at what the inheritance patterns even of the expression profiles are,” he said.
In terms of applications, using arrays to diagnose and classify cancers is going to be an important one, Fodor thinks, but “ultimately people will look at issues such as ’which parts of which chromosomes did my children get from my grandparents?’ I think there will over time be some popularization of genetics.”
For microarrays to enter the pop culture, though, they may have to become a lot cheaper — something scientists sure wouldn’t mind either. “Prices of microarrays will come down, absolutely. That’s what happens with mass manufacturing, there is no question,” said Fodor, pointing out that the price per data point has already plummeted during the last five years.
Did Fodor ever believe he would create a company whose products would become the Kleenex of microarrays? Many people didn’t, he remembered — they were doubting that there was any merit in putting hundreds of thousands of compounds onto a surface. “I believed in my heart, obviously, in the technology, because I devoted so much of my life to it. However, what surprised me was how rapidly it [all] occurred.”