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Caliper Spins Off $25M Subsidiary Amphora: Major LabChip Customer Technology


Microfluidics leader Caliper Technologies has spun out a $25 million startup Amphora, which will use Caliper’s LabChip technology to develop a chemical genomics database for pharmaceutical drug discovery, the company said.

Amphora, which is 25 percent owned by Mountain View, Calif.-based Caliper, is to be headed up by Martin Haslanger, the former president of Sphinx Laboratories at Eli Lilly. Bill Jansens, also formerly of Sphinx, will serve as vice president, operations.

The company’s chemical genomics database will catalog the interactions between gene products and small molecules. This data will include specificity of interaction, potency, metabolism, ADME/toxicology, drug absorption, and physical properties of the molecules. Amphora researchers will use Caliper’s LabChip high throughput screening system, which includes Caliper’s glass microfluidics chips and instrumentation developed by Agilent technologies, to produce this data.

“Amphora will be a very large customer for Caliper’s LabChip high-throughput screening systems,” said Jane Green, Caliper’s director of corporate communications.

In spinning off this startup, Caliper is creating an expanded market for its LabChip, the way Affymetrix created a large customer for its GeneChip when it spun out its $100 million population genomics subsidiary Perlegen, or the way that Applied Biosystems created an instant market for its sequencing machines when it created genomic database company Celera Genomics.

Caliper is also expanding its competitive high-throughput screening arsenal against that of rival microfluidics leader Aclara Biosciences. While Aclara has not used its microfluidics technology directly to create content databases, it has been developing high throughput screening applications for its microfluidics devices since 1999 and has teamed up with ABI to offer these applications to the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector.

“This paradigm has certainly been used in other areas, and in the world of microfluidics,” said John Harley, a biotechnology and microfluidics market specialist for microfluidics software and event company Coventor.” But Caliper might be unique in that they are the only ones doing it in an entirely microscale approach.”

Caliper declined to specify how many LabChips and systems Amphora would use, but said the revenue from these systems would be detailed on Caliper’s balance sheet.


Sipper Screening Solution


Caliper’s LabChip high throughput screening system, which it introduced as a stand-alone product September 10, consists of assay development and screening instruments, as well as Caliper LabChips. The LabChips each include four tiny capillary straws called sippers, through which test compounds are “sipped” from microwell plates and then drawn into the microchannels etched into the surface of the glass chip, which is enclosed in plastic. These channels are configured to move these miniscule volumes of test compound with a target biomolecule, and through a series of processing steps that determine how the compound interacts with the target. A combination of computer-controlled pressure and capillary electrophoresis is used to move these volumes through the channels.

“The major difference between the LabChip system and conventional screening systems is that all of the experiments take place within the channels of the chip in our system, as opposed to the micro-wells of microwell plates,” said Green. “What we are able to do is miniaturize, automate, and integrate the experiments to do much higher quality experimentation using a tiny fraction of the compounds and targets required to perform the experiments.”

Miniaturization can also make the screening process cheaper. “With the drug discovery process, each sample of a candidate drug can cost $10 to do a test. They want to do 100,000 tests a day. If they can reduce the sample volume, and reduce sample cost by a factor of ten, this adds up in a hurry.”

The company has claimed that microfluidic high throughput screening enables researchers to perform the same assay with 100,000-fold reduction in the amount of target used, and with a 97 percent reproducibility rate in tests. If the chips are run continuously, it is possible to do tens of thousands of experiments per day, said Green.

But microfluidics has overall speed disadvantages compared to using massively parallel robotic screening methods, the other major high throughput screening method.

“These chips tend to be sequential in operation, and that creates a bottleneck,” Harley said. In robotic operations, by contrast, hundreds of samples can be processed simultaneously in parallel.

Additionally, incubation steps can be easily accomplished using parallel robotic screening by setting aside a microtiter plate, then picking up another one for which the step is complete, while the incubation step in a microfluidic device must run its course before the other steps are completed. “For things that involve an incubation step, it’s not clear that there are advantages in going to microscale,” said Harley.

Amphora nevertheless aims to use these chips in a massive screening project, using the chips to screen thousands of biological targets against hundreds of thousands of compounds, and then will create a database out of the results of these screens. “This will be one of the biggest chemical genomics databases in the world,” Green said.



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