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CombiMatrix Launches Deal with NASA to Send Semiconductor Biochips to Space Station

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Semiconductor biochip startup CombiMatrix will see its microarrays launched into space in a deal with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Ames Research Center.

NASA has agreed to license and purchase CombiMatrix’s active biochips and technology to use in biological research both in ground-based labs and aboard the International Space Station.

The Snoqualmie, Wash.-based subsidiary of Acacia Research would not reveal specific financial terms of the agreement. But CombiMatrix Vice President Bret Undem indicated the collaboration would last for more than one year and that the “revenue potential is significant to the company.”

NASA plans to upload data from genomic experiments performed on Earth into the space station, where astronauts will customize Combimatrix’s biochips to run experiments in a microgravity environment, the company said. The experiments are part of NASA’s recently announced $27 million program to conduct research to understand how human DNA behaves in space.

“CombiMatrix’s technology will enable NASA to conduct genome-wide functional analysis of any organism under any environmental condition, including in a micro-gravity environment,” NASA Ames Research Center research scientist Viktor Stolc said in a statement. “NASA scientists also hope to use the CombiMatrix technology in the future to monitor astronaut health on the International Space Station.”

CombiMatrix’s biochips consist of a semiconductor coated with a three-dimensional layer of porous material in which DNA, RNA, peptides, or other small molecules can be synthesized or immobilized within discrete test sites. Accompanying software allows users to direct sequence synthesis on the chip by programming the individual electrodes on the surface of the semiconductor. In this way, the user can control exactly which base or peptide goes on which electrode, and adapt the chips for almost any type of gene- or protein-based analysis, from SNP studies to protein screens.

To prevent cross-contamination between test sites on the chip, the company uses “virtual flasks,” thousands of tiny chemicals arranged in a grid pattern on the surface of the semiconductor wafer. Because the surface is porous and three-dimensional, the chip can hold a relatively large amount of sequence for synthesis, generating a stronger signal, the company said.

In early July, CombiMatrix entered a 15-year deal with Roche Diagnostics in which Roche will purchase, use, and resell CombiMatrix’s biochips.

Combimatrix’s is not the only biochip technology that NASA will use. In late July, NASA selected Caliper Technologies to develop a microfluidics system for crystallizing proteins and other biological molecules in space. That deal calls for Caliper to provide its LabChip microfluidics system to NASA researchers

— MMJ

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