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CombiMatrix Steps Into Growing MiRNA Array Market; Bets Price, Portfolio Will Beat Rivals


CombiMatrix last week entered the increasingly competitive market for commercial microRNA microarrays by launching a portfolio of miRNA arrays and quickly setting itself up to compete against other nascent miRNA players like Invitrogen, Exiqon, and Ambion.

The move came just prior to the announcement that CombiMatrix's parent company, Acacia Research, announced plans to spin out the Mulkiteo, Wash.-based array firm by the second quarter of this year.

According to the company, customers can now purchase species-specific miRNAs for human, mouse, rat, C. elegans, Drosophila, Arabidopsis, and maize, as well as a compendium array that includes miRNAs from all these different species on one array. All catalog miRNA arrays are priced at $99, CombiMatrix said.

CombiMatrix's approach is in contrast to what most of its miRNA array competitors have been doing. While Invitrogen, Exiqon, and Ambion all sell compendium miRNA arrays, CombiMatrix is betting that a more diverse product line will equal stronger sales.

For example, Invitrogen's NCode Multi-Species miRNA Array Platform, launched last month, offers human, mouse, rat, Drosophila, C. elegans, and zebrafish, but only on the same array, priced at $150 per array. Peter Jozsi, the company's manager of gene regulation, said in November that customers have the opportunity to obtain the content in separate mammalian and non-mammalian probe sets if they want to print arrays themselves (see BAN 11/16/2005).

"It's very nice that people have all of these different microRNAs on an array, but for the most part people work on one organism, not on eight
at once."

But according to Andy McShea, CombiMatrix's vice president of biology and chemistry, its competitors may be releasing compendium arrays because they are easier to make than species-specific arrays, not because they are more useful.

"It's very nice that people have all of these different microRNAs on an array, but for the most part people work on one organism, not on eight at once," McShea told BioArray News last week.

"We have made a compendium one [and] the reason we've done that is because there are, at least in the public literature right now, actually a small number of characterized microRNAs," he explained.

Invitrogen's Jozsi told BioArray News this week via e-mail that his company has no plans to issue species-specific arrays at the moment, but could in the future. "Should the number of validated miRNAs increase dramatically to a point that would justify a species-specific array, or [if] researchers develop a preference for that type of product configuration, we will respond to that demand," Jozsi said.

"The primary reason we led with a multi-species array was that it was a very manageable task given what is currently a relatively small number of validated miRNAs in the model genomes," he said. "Many customers like having multiple organisms on the array as they provide a quick qualitative assessment of hybridization performance when identical probes for more closely related organisms generate similar profiles."

Søren Echwald, business development director at Copenhagen, Denmark-based Exiqon, told BioArray News in an e-mail this week that over the course of 2006 its miRNA offering will most likely diversify.

"Exiqon does plan to send out more arrays this year, including a chip with all [miRNAs] from a range of vertebrate organisms within a few months," Echwald said. He added that "thanks to the high degree of homology," the company's mirCURY array, which contains all human, mouse, and rat miRNAs, "also targets a number of microRNAs from other vertebrates including zebrafish, dog, chimpanzee, and chicken. According to Echwald, plant microRNA arrays are also planned for 2006.

He also pointed out that Exiqon's miRCURY arrays use locked nucleic acids — strongly binding nucleotide analogs — as probes to augment hybridization affinity. CombiMatrix uses oligonucleotide probes. Exiqon's chips cost $1,290 for a three-pack of arrays, $2,400 for a six-pack, and $8,290 for a 24-pack, Echwald said. Its chips therefore cost between $345 and $430 an array, depending on the size of the order.

Both Jozsi and Echwald said that they anticipate more companies will be joining the market for miRNA arrays in the next 18 months.

"Given how hot the field is right now, we expect any company that can purify, label and detect, overexpress, knock down, or predict the targets of miRNAs to enter the market over the next 18 months, if they haven't already," Jozsi said. "New market opportunities like miRNA analysis don't come along as often as we in the research tool business would like," he said.

How Much?

Both Jozsi and Echwald said in November that it was too early to tell how large the market for miRNA arrays was, but they expected strong growth in the area, a point Mike Tognotti, CombiMatrix's head of sales and marketing, reiterated last week in an interview with BioArray News.

"It's way too early to tell; it's hard to determine how big it's going to be," Tognotti said of the market size. "It's really tough to say, 'Is it a $10-million-a-year opportunity or a $100-million-a-year opportunity?' It's just too hard," he said.

No third-party estimates for the miRNA market were available.

But if, as Tognotti said, "there are not enough data points out there" to assess the market opportunity, then why is CombiMatrix taking time to focus on a market that is difficult to measure?

McShea said that because it was relatively cheap for CombiMatrix to synthesize the miRNA content on its arrays using its CustomArray synthesis technology, it made it possible for the company to go after undetermined markets.

"We incur an insignificant amount of logistical burden to increase the amount of miRNAs on one array," he said. "One advantage of our system is that it's completely customizable. We simply reprogram the synthesizer to synthesize an array to feature additional content," he explained.

According to McShea, CombiMatrix will use this technology to add relevant miRNAs to its arrays as they are discovered. "It's a field that is obviously going to grow in complexity as people learn more and more about these things. It's quite obvious that there are lots of miRNAs to be found," he said.

Tognotti said that even if the market doesn't coalesce, his company will "continue to go into new application areas."

"Even if there's not a huge market opportunity right now for miRNAs, it's easy for us to do and we'll continue to go into new application areas," he said.

— Justin Petrone ([email protected])

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