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BioAnalytica Conference Showcases Europe s Budding Biochip Technologies

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Biochips were budding at the BioAnalytica conference in Munich last week, as a variegated bunch of companies displayed their wares, drawing the rapt attention of an otherwise blasé crowd.

Entering the cavernous exhibition hall, attendees were greeted by Roche’s display of its MatrixArray system, developed in combination with CombiMatrix of Seattle. Roche employees at the booth said they were “surprised” by the amount of attention that the system, a bow-front silver box with microfluidic “monocassette” chips, was getting from the people strolling by.

The MatrixArray, which has 1,000 electrodes on which 35-mer oligonucleotides are synthesized, is designed to allow the user to make custom chips on the spot and perform second-pass microarray experiments.

Further into the 11,000 square-meter hall, Munich-based Infineon showcased the low-density “Flow-Thru” brand microarray system that it has also produced with an American partner, Gene Logic spinoff MetriGenix, (see article below). Flat screens at the booth displayed video animations showing the biomolecule probe cleaving to the inside of the array’s microchannels, while sample flows through, to reduce hybridization times.

The company has 10-15 customers for the system, and 30 evaluators, according to MetriGenix representatives at the booth.

This MetriGenix-Infineon setup has a close competitor in the microarray system being developed jointly with PamGene of the Netherlands and Japanese optics giant Olympus. But unlike Infineon, Olympus kept its system prototype in a corner of its booth where it could have been easily missed.

The system employs PamGene’s own PamChip, which includes microchannels that sample flows through, together with an Olympus imaging system. This setup is designed for rapid hybridization and high-quality read outs. Currently, the customers for this system are mainly in Japan, said an Olympus representative.

Regardless of attention from the estimated 5,000 attendees at BioAnalytica, however, these second-generation systems may not yet find wide reception among European researchers. While the North American market has already gone through rounds of high-density Affymetrix-type experiments and is demanding these custom focused arrays, said one booth attendant, the Europeans are just getting into high-density microarrays.

Perhaps sensing this earlier-stage market, Munich-area company MWG Biotech chose to launch its high-density array hybridization service at the BioAnalytica conference. The service “offers an easy and convenient entry into this new technology,” a product brochure proclaims.

While US-based microarray services companies such as Expression Analysis of Durham, NC, and Genome Explorations of Memphis offer experiments on the Affymetrix platform, and Paradigm Genetics has just entered the ring on the Agilent platform, MWG plans to use its own glass-slide chips for its hybridization service, which is aimed mainly at Europe, according to a product representative.

MWG has a license from Affymetrix to produce chips of up to 10,000 spots, and currently offers a range of catalog oligo arrays for human, rat, mouse, zebrafish, yeast, and several microorganisms.

Aiming at a completely different market, Bruker Daltonics displayed its Apsis bio-identification solution, a white metal box and a plug-and-play cartridge. The system is designed “to make detection of biowarfare agents as easy as pregnancy testing.” said Norbert Klopper, a manager of software development. The box is sturdy enough to withstand several G’s, and can be carried in a tank or a mobile lab, Klopper said.

The system cannot yet be used in the field itself, though, because a lab tech must first extract the DNA or RNA from the sample. This nucleic acid sample can then be inserted into a cartridge that both amplifies it with PCR and hybridizes it to cDNA probes for pathogens.

The chips, developed in collaboration with startup Clondiag of Jena, Germany, include 500-base pair probes for a number of common pathogenic bacteria, including B. anthracis, E. coli, B. subtilis, and B. globigii. They also contain probes for S. cerevisiae and poly-A binding proteins. The chips are contained in a cartridge, atop a heater substrate so hybridization temperatures can be controlled.

Clondiag originally designed this “assay processor platform” for point-of-care medical diagnostics, and is also marketing diagnostic applications.

The pathogen detection system is currently in a proof-of-concept stage, and Bruker plans to introduce the commercial version in the fall, Klopper said.

In addition to Clondiag, a handful of other small German biochip startups are aiming at the point-of-care diagnostic market. SIRS lab, also of Jena, has its eye on point-of-care diagnostics for sepsis. (The name stands for Systematic Inflammatory Response Syndrome). But the two-year-old, 25-person company is seeking short-term revenues from “Lab Arraytor” human cDNA microarrays for inflammation, interleukins, chemokines, MAP-kinases, apoptosis, and sphingolipid pathways that it sells in Germany for €170 each.

Meanwhile, Febit of Mannheim, a player that was the early darling of researchers in Europe and the US because its customized all-in-one Geniom One system allows users to design arrays to fit their experiments (rather than vice versa), has decided it would be wise to wait to launch Geniom One in Europe until the end of 2003. It will delay its US launch US until 2004 because it cannot yet service the instrument in the US. The company is also exploring the possibility of distributing the system in the US through a strategic partner, company officials said.

This cautious attitude toward growth, which tends to be more common in Germany than California, may be wise in the end and lead to fewer disappointed customers and burned out cash reserves. But with the entry of well-heeled players like Roche and Infineon into the European market, smaller startups may find themselves scrambling to keep up — even on their home turf.

— MMJ

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