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Australia's BioChip Innovations Joins Growing Global Market for Flu Chips

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An Australian biochip company has become the latest player to enter the race to sell multiplex assays that strain-type flu viruses.
 
Brisbane-based BioChip Innovations said this week that it is on track to release its Influenza PrimRset product by the end of the year and will market it to influenza research and reference labs and veterinary research labs.
 
According to BCI CEO and co-founder Graeme Barnett, the kit will be designed to “rapidly” subtype and strain-type type A influenza, detect resistance to neuraminidase inhibitor drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza, and identify mutations that enable bird flu strains to infect humans.
 
Additionally, the firm hopes to exploit its proximity to Asian markets — some of which have been hit particularly hard by avian flu — to build a base there.
 
Barnett said the privately owned company has developed the test using its silicon nanowire biochip technology, a system that includes a real-time PCR-based biochip, an internally developed DNA bioinformatics system, and primers used in PCR to detect and analyze strains of influenza type A.
 
The company, which expects to import the influenza reagents onto the biochip platform in 2008, also plans to develop a chip that will detect and analyze more than 65 different flaviviruses, including Dengue fever viruses and West Nile virus, Barnett wrote.
 
A Febrile Market
 
BCI will enter the flu-chip market at a time when a host of similar arrays are being developed or sold around the world. In the US, influenza chips developed by CombiMatrix and the University of Colorado at Boulder have already become available, while the National Institutes of Health has recently tried to license out its own flu-identification arrays.
 
Last week, the NIH announced the availability of a microarray that detects and subtypes human influenza viruses. According to the announcement, the array was developed by National Cancer Institute scientists and can detect and identify human influenza viruses, discover new subtypes of influenza viruses, and diagnose influenza outbreaks.
 
Kathy Rowlen's lab at the University of Colorado has developed two generations of arrays for influenza identification, FluChip and, more recently, MChip, which diagnostic provider Quidel late last year licensed for commercialization (see BAN 1/2/2007).
 
Other players include ST Microelectronics, which has a flu chip in development, and CombiMatrix, which has had an influenza identification array on the market since 2005 and has received substantial support from the US government to develop pathogen-identifying diagnostics.
 
Most recently, CMBX received $890,000 from the US Air Force to develop a field-deployable system designed to identify all influenza strains (see BAN 3/20/2007).
 
According to CMBX CEO Amit Kumar, government interest is a key factor that is driving the market for flu chips. "Governments always want to support and use domestic companies, but only if those companies have the technology necessary," he wrote in an e-mail to BioArray News this week.
 
He said that CMBX has worked with the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and other domestic government agencies, as well as the Health Protection Agency in the UK.
 
"Influenza arrays represent a class of new diagnostic assays that fall under the rubric of 'microbial comparative genome hybridization,'" he wrote. "The diagnosis of pathogen infections in any scenario where there is a high level of genome mutation is a good candidate for these types of assays, where our array technology's flexibility in design upgrades is very powerful."
 
Similarly, BCI has benefited from support from the Queensland state government in Australia. The firm is headquartered at the province's $1.25 million bioincubation facility at Brisbane Technology Park.
 
Queensland's Minister for State Development John Mickel last month voiced support for BCI, stating that "current genetic tests being used to detect and subtype influenza viruses have a number of deficiencies."
 
 
BCI may also have an advantage over some of its rivals: Its proximity to Asia may eventually enable it to win customers.
 

"The biggest disadvantage of being a DNA diagnostics company in Australia is the lack of sophistication in the local venture capital market,” but its ”proximity to Asia … provides BCI with significant advantages over many European and North American companies."

"We have found many exciting innovations emerging in Asia, and presently BCI has three significant relationships with Asian companies and research organizations that allow us to access these," Barnett wrote. "There is no doubt that Australia’s proximity to Asia and similar time zones provide BCI with significant advantages over many European and North American companies."
 
Barnett wrote that BCI has also benefited from increased company-to-company interaction between Asian and Australian firms, and that BCI was especially poised to do business in Asia because two of its directors speak Mandarin Chinese and have close links to the region.
 
"The two fastest-growing markets in the world are India and China, each of which has large and rapidly expanding populations able to afford sophisticated DNA diagnostic products," Barnett wrote.
 
At the same time, Barnett acknowledged that being an Australian biochip company also has disadvantages not felt by US or European rivals.
 
"The biggest disadvantage of being a DNA diagnostics company in Australia is the lack of sophistication in the local venture capital market," Barnett wrote. "The local VCs tend to favor early-stage pharma biotech companies and have little [interest in] diagnostics companies like BCI, which often have more complex business models and technologies," he added.
 
"In Australia it has become common for biotech companies to raise their early capital predominantly from angel investors, [and] then either list early on the Australian Stock exchange or seek venture capital in the United States or Europe," wrote Barnett.

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