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Applied Biosystems Microarray Promise: A Chip and a System

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CORRECTION: The July 30 BioArray News article incorrectly stated that Immune Tolerance Networks, a collaborative research effort headquartered at the University of California, San Francisco, beta-tested the product. Applied Biosystems said that is not the case. The corrected story is below.

Applied Biosystems clearly believes that customers of microarray technology want a single microarray containing the whole human genome, along with new instrumentation to surround it, the ability to integrate into existing sequencing systems, and access to online databases and content.

Price and technical specifications can wait.

Last Tuesday, the Foster City, Calif.-based unit of Applera, announced that it would provide this whole-genome, single-chip system before the end of the year, signaling its entrance into the microarray market.

Then, on Wednesday, the company issued its fourth-quarter financial results and made its only public comments detailing the system that likely had its new industrial-scale manufacturing competitors abuzz.

The microarray product will be constructed of 60-mer oligos, which will be synthesized and purified before being attached to a “forced nylon support.” The company will also offer a chemiluminescent process for detection, which it claims is more sensitive than existing fluorescent detection methods. The ABI Expression Array System will be integrated with the company’s Sequence Detection System products for gene expression analysis in the Celera Discovery System platform. The product will be sold as an instrumentation system, reflecting the company’s sequencing equipment model, providing initial up-front revenues and additional funds from consumables. The company is considering providing contract research or services to introduce the product into the market.

The sales pitch for the product? “You can do things you couldn’t do before, and you can pick out genes that are differentially expressed that you couldn’t see before because they were buried in the noise,” said Mike Hunkapillar, ABI’s CEO.

Applied Biosystems did not respond to BioArray News requests for additional detail on the system.

The ABI announcement, while lacking in detail and heavy on promises of wonders yet to come, clearly signals a strategic shift in the top tier of the microarray industry. Parent Applera is one of the life sciences giants, with ABI as its instrumentation powerhouse, and is an important supplier to the world’s half dozen large genome centers — to the point where orders from these researchers can have measurable effects on ABI’s quarterly financial reports.

The company, as well as the entire life sciences sector globally, has been suffering fiscal pain from a global bear market. In December, ABI announced a layoff of 500 people — 10 percent of its workforce — at a cost of $40 million. Additionally, the company slashed 3 percent of its R&D spend and shuttered sister company Celera’s contract sequencing business based in Rockville, Md.

For its fourth quarter, the company reported $433 million, a 4 percent increase in net revenues over the same quarter in 2002.

The company said it forecasts single-digit annual revenue growth for fiscal 2004, weighted toward the second half of the year, “due, in part, to the timing of new product introductions.”

A search of online databases yielded no published scientific articles based on the ABI microarray system.

A survey of the US Patent and Trademark database turned up at least four patents awarded to Applera potentially applicable in the microarray arena:

  • No. 6,573,089, June 3, 2003, “Method for using and making a fiber array,”
  • No. 6,541,618, April 1, 2003, Nitro-substituted non-fluorescent asymmetric cyanine dye compounds,”
  • No. 6,579,367, June 17, 2003, “Apparatus and method for spotting a substrate,”
  • No. 6,228,659, May 8, 2001, “Method and apparatus for making arrays.”

The company did not respond to a request for verification of the patents’ relationship to the announced microarray system.

— MOK

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