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Estonian SNP Startup Asper Clears Licensing Hurdle to Selling Arrays in US Market

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Estonian startup Asper Biotech has cleared the way to market its microarray-based Genorama genotyping system in the US, through securing a license to the SNP-IT primer extension technology from Orchid Biosciences of Princeton, NJ.

Asper, which is based in Estonia’s academic capital of Tartu, paid Orchid a one-time license fee in addition to yielding somewhere around 10 percent of royalties for the genotyping technology, said Orchid’s communications vice president Barbara Lindheim.

The SNP-IT primer extension technology is based on hybridization of two oligonucleotides in which the strands are designed so the target sequence is one base longer, and the exact nucleotide at which the SNP occurs is extending upwards like a chemical flag.

The hybridized oligos are then primed with fluorescently labeled terminators of four different colors that bind to these single-base flags. Each differently colored terminator binds to a specific and different base. The color of the signal at the hybridization site then indicates whether a variation from the expected nucleotide is present, and what kind of variation it is.

Asper has adapted this process to glass slide microarrays. The company markets both catalog and custom microarrays with oligonucleotides designed to detect different mutations, and has developed four-color laser instruments and computer programs for reading and analyzing the chip results.

“What Asper has designed is a detection system, software, and hardware that’s much less expensive than scanners and standard microscopy can offer,” said Kalev Kask, Asper’s director of strategic development.

Because of this purported price advantage—the whole system costs about $75,000—the company is initially targeting the academic market.

“We want to capture that part of the market, and we have to get a foothold,” said Kask.

Last August, the company sold a system to Columbia University as part of a year-long collaboration on SNP screening. Currently Asper also offers catalog p53 mutation chips and custom arrays for different mutations.

To sell more systems in the US, Asper knew it had to license the SNP-IT technology from Orchid: as a result, the licensing negotiations were friendly, said both companies.

Asper founder Andreas Metsalpu was an early pioneer in primer extension technology and enjoyed a collegial relationship with Michael Boyce-Jacino, Orchid’s chief technology officer, said Lindheim. “Along the line somewhere he realized that the primer extension technology he was using was covered by our patents and they contacted us,” she said.

Orchid was not threatened by this rival genotyping technology, because it sees Asper’s technology as complementary rather than competitive to its automated high-throughput genotyping systems that can do over 100,000 SNPs in a day. “The university lab would be a good customer for them,” Lindheim said.

Over the long-term, though, Asper has higher aspirations. “This technology is very amenable for diagnostics,” said Kask. “We continue to work in that direction.”

In addition to the p53 chip, Asper has finished validating a beta thalassemia chip to detect the genetic mutations involved in this inherited blood disorder, which involves quantitative defects in the synthesis of beta chains of hemoglobin.

Currently, the company is a whipper-SNPper of an operation, with 35 employees in Tartu, $1.1 million in venture funding, and the equivalent of $1 million from the Estonian government; as well as a brisk business selling its coated microarray printing slides. Kask is anchoring US marketing efforts from Northern California, where he hopes to snag co-marketing partners and expand its collaborations in diagnostics.

“We would like to work with cystic fibrosis and eye diseases as well,” said Kask. — MMJ

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