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Bucking Trend of Selling microRNA Chips, Asuragen To Lure Pharma with Service Model

Betting that informatics know-how and novel content will distinguish it from rivals in the miRNA array space, Asuragen last week launched its DiscovArray miRNA Expression Services, which uses an Affymetrix-manufactured array to screen all validated miRNAs from the Sanger Center’s miRBase repository as well as 12,000 exploratory human miRNAs.
The company hopes that it can attract customers that would rather outsource miRNA expression profiling projects than buy a catalog array from firms like Exiqon and Agilent Technologies.
Asuragen’s market debut comes amid a flurry of miRNA product launches. Last month, Applied Biosystems began selling its Taqman Array Human miRNA Panel, while German biotech Febit began offering its Geniom miRNA Biochip in May, and Agilent debuted its Human 1.0 miRNA Microarray in April (see BAN 7/24/2007, BAN 4/10/2007).
According to Scott Hunicke-Smith, vice president and general manager of Asuragen services, his firm is seeking to set itself apart from rivals in the market by offering a service for pharma customers that are unlikely to bring a miRNA array platform in house.
“As a service provider, our job is always to provide the best data quality possible to our customers, so we use our expertise to pick the best platforms suited to the specific customer need,” he wrote in an e-mail to BioArray News this week. 
“It's also a strategy decision — our service is oriented toward pharmaceutical research and clinical research, which is more often outsourced,” Hunicke-Smith wrote. “We also want to help people succeed with their data, which is why we've invested so much in informatics support — to do real hypothesis testing, biomarker development, or pathway analysis with array results.”
Asuragen was founded last year when Ambion sold its research products division to Applied Biosystems. Since then it has been tweaking the DiscovArray platform for an eventual launch. The array itself is owned by Ambion, although Asuragen — through its close links to the firm — has the rights to use the array in a service. That service offers customers access to the content on the DiscovArray chip, as well as its data analysis expertise and the ability to receive data through miRInform, the firm’s web-based delivery system.
According to Hunicke-Smith, informatics is where Asuragen “absolutely dominates.” The miRInform data package, for instance, “gives the client normalized data with methods vetted as to their accuracy and precision, along with stats on differentially expressed miRNAs, heatmaps, volcano plots, and several other outputs,” he wrote.
He added that Asuragen’s faith in a service model for miRNA profiling, as opposed to an “off-the-shelf” sales model, is based on the company’s belief that no one platform can do everything a customer desires, especially in the area of data analysis.

“Our service is oriented toward pharmaceutical research and clinical research, which is more often outsourced.”

“You have to recognize that data analysis routines designed for mRNA arrays can give wrong and misleading answers if applied to microRNA array data,” he wrote. “Second, it is difficult for the platform providers to do enough real biology to support their data analysis solutions close enough to customers’ experimental needs because there are so many different experiments and ways to approach the problem.” 
Hunicke-Smith said that Asuragen’s target customers are primarily focused on diagnostic or therapeutic applications, so “we can set specs on how we balance sensitivity versus specificity ... or correlation to alternate technologies so that our signal processing algorithms do the most they can to find the small but statistically significant differences,” he wrote.
Still, while Asuragen is confident in its ability to tackle the miRNA array market from the services side, Hunicke-Smith admitted that Ambion is actually mulling whether to jump into the catalog market at a later date by selling DiscovArray for individual customer use.
If the company does decide to move toward an off-the shelf model, it will up against a growing number of competitors that can hit back in terms of sales and marketing outreach — like Agilent or Invitrogen — or give it a run on the flexibility side, like Febit, which looks to partner with “people who have creative and visionary ideas for microarrays,” as its vice president and general manager Stefan Matysiak told BioArray News earlier this year (see BAN 3/13/2007).
“Over time, I think Ambion may sell the [version one] array used in the DiscovArray service,” Hunicke-Smith wrote last week. “But that will be their choice.”

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