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EcoArray, Agilent Partner to Deliver Tests For Environmental Toxicology


EcoArray, an Alachua, Fla.-based provider of ecological toxicology tests, has partnered with Agilent Technologies to develop a fathead minnow array for use in fresh water monitoring, which was released last week.

The arrangement appears to be a first for Agilent as its platform moves into the arena of environmental testing, and reflects an extension of Agilent's interest in environmental testing into the array space.

John Rogers, president and CEO of EcoArray, told BioArray News last week that the company has launched the first version of its fathead minnow chip, a 2,000-gene array developed on the Agilent platform through a partnership with the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Rogers added that a higher-throughput version of the chip will be available by next June. "We expect to annotate an additional 8,000 to 15,000 genes in the next few months and bring out an expanded gene array in late spring, 2006," he said. Rogers described the market for the technology as "nascent."

The fathead minnow array isn't the first for EcoArray, which launched a largemouth bass array on its own in 2003, but Rogers said that the partnership with Agilent represents a break for array companies that specialize in environmental testing that are often overlooked in favor of array-based human disease research.

"The interest … and therefore the money … is
in human disease research. So you have the primary reason that human disease testing was first."

"Certainly, human disease research has a lot of money," Rogers said about the challenges companies like EcoArray have faced.

"The interest … and therefore the money … is in human disease research. [So] you have the primary reason that human disease testing was first," he explained.

Stuart Matlow, a spokesperson for Agilent, told BioArray News last week that the EcoArray chip is "probably" the first environmental detection chip to run on Agilent's microarray platform, but that the company is not sure.

"We do get a great many custom arrays and the designs are private to the users," Matlow said.

Matlow added that the fathead minnow array will be printed on Agilent's 11K arrays using 60-mer oligos, and that the decision to partner with EcoArray reflected an extension of Agilent's interest in environmental testing into the array space.

"Environmental analysis is a big part of Agilent's market for chromatography and mass spectrometry technology, and this is a natural extension of microarrays," Matlow said.

Rogers said that EcoArray, not Agilent, will handle marketing and distribution for the fathead minnow arrays.

North America's Zebrafish

According to Rogers, the company is also mulling bringing other organism-specific arrays for environmental toxicology testing to the market, including chips for sheepshead minnow and grass shrimp.

However, he said the company decided that fathead minnow would create the greatest interest, as it is "the standard animal model used by the EPA for freshwater testing."

"If the US wanted to pick a fish that actually lived in the water and flourished here, the fathead minnow lives almost anywhere in the US," Rogers explained, "whereas, with zebrafish, which are a fully sequenced genome, and used in Europe, they don't last very well in most places in the US."

EcoArray's selection of Agilent for its content came directly from a collaboration with the EPA, Rogers said, growing out of a cooperative research agreement in which both parties contributed approximately $100,000 to find a commercial platform suitable for the testing. Rogers said it reflected a growing interest in microarray technology by the EPA.

Iris Knoebl, an investigator at the EPA's National Exposure Research Laboratory in Cincinnati, said in a statement that the agency is "very interested in the data that microarrays can provide in the field of environmental toxicology" and that it expects "this first microarray to provide useful data "in order to" help researchers identify molecular indicators for numerous aquatic stressors."

Rogers said last week that the new array also reflected a first for the EPA. "We believe we are the only company to have such an agreement," he said.

"We think microarray-based tests will both provide clearer, more explanatory results than current tests and be substantially less expensive," he continued. The chip alone is in the neighborhood of $300 to $400, he said.

Aside from the EPA, Rogers said EcoArray's target short-term consumers will most likely be in academia, government, and industry. "At this stage, we have about 16 or 17 people we've worked with in any significant sense," he said.

"They include the EPA, the US Geological Survey… [and] a number of independent research institutes," said Rogers.

Future customers could also include the University of Florida, the University of Southern Mississippi, the University of Texas, the University of California, and the University of Trondheim in Norway, he said. All of the universities have significant environmental toxicology testing resources.

"In the short term, we will rely on our own academic connections, because the market for this stuff is primarily research," Rogers said. He added that EcoArray expects its fathead minnow array to be used in compound screening within the next few years, but warned that it may be "awhile before [EcoArray's chip] gets into environmental toxicology."

"Then probably there will be some market acceptance time during which the EPA will be very helpful. They are interested in this but they move extraordinarily slowly," he said.

One customer EcoArray has snagged already is Proctor & Gamble, with whom EcoArray will begin its first screening project in early 2006. Rogers did not provide further information about that partnership.

Disruptive Technology

Coupled with the fact that the market for environmental tox arrays is pretty nascent, Rogers said that as the company launches its arrays, it is likely to face resistance from established technologies that have been used up until now to test freshwater systems for toxins.

The EcoArray CEO said that the breadth of array technology may be intimidating for companies that are unfamiliar with it.

"Industries that spend millions of dollars on clean-up and maintenance and so forth are not so sure they'd like to have massive quantities of additional data that may draw conclusions that they weren't prepared for," he said.

"The other challenge in any environmental services company is that disruptive technology is hard enough when you are dealing with something everybody wants, so it's harder when you are dealing with people who don't know if it's something they really want," Rogers said.

He said all of the challenges the company faced would most likely leave them with marketing strategy that favors academia and compound screening.

— Justin Petrone ([email protected])