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ExonHit Bets Agilent Alliance Will Open Door For SpliceArray to Play In Asia-Pacific Market


Agilent Technologies last week signed a sales and marketing agreement with ExonHit Therapeutics that will expand a previous distribution agreement to enable Agilent to actively sell ExonHit's splice variant arrays through its offices worldwide.

For ExonHit, the agreement is a stepping stone to introducing the SpliceArray portfolio it launched last year to untapped regional markets, including Asia-Pacific.

"Right now we are not very active in Asia," Christina Hedberg, ExonHit's senior director of business development, told BioArray News this week. "We have some local distributors there, and have done some sales training in Asia through Agilent, but this generally expands our Asian presence," she said.

For Agilent, the agreement gives it the ability to sell what it sees as "the next natural development in gene-expression technology." Microarrays are a "very important part of Agilent's life science portfolio," said Scott Harrison, Agilent's product marketing manager for eArray and custom arrays. "We are aggressively pursuing emerging applications and splice arrays are a strategic addition."

Paris-based ExonHit originally co-developed its SpliceArrays with Agilent's assistance and launched the SpliceArray portfolio -- which now contains nine splice variant arrays -- as a worldwide service through its US office in Gaithersburg, Md., last year (see BAN 2/9/2005).

"We are aggressively pursuing emerging applications and splice arrays are a strategic addition."

In September 2005, Agilent agreed to distribute ExonHit's arrays, pitting ExonHit's chips for the first time up against competing products from Jivan Biologics and Affymetrix (see BAN 9/7/2005). Since that time, SpliceArrays have been available globally through Agilent. However, according to Agilent, the latest agreement reflects a change in how it will sell the arrays -- namely, through its website as well as through field staff.

Harrison told BioArray News last week that ExonHit's SpliceArrays are being sold through the company's "normal Agilent microarray channels" and "in addition to the field sales force, they will be marketed on Agilent's website and there will be direct links to the ExonHit site for detailed technical information and support."

Agilent has manufactured arrays for outside providers in the past, such as Agendia and ExonHit's splice variant chip rival Jivan Biologics. Harrison said that it has also marketed arrays developed by external collaborators, but said that previous collaborations were with academics for species-specific arrays such as rice blast disease and Xenopus. The deal with ExonHit "is the first agreement of this sort" with an external commercial partner, Harrison said.

Fran DiNuzzo, Agilent's vice president and general manager of Integrated Biology Solutions, explained in a statement last week that Agilent views splice variant analysis as the "next natural development in gene-expression technology," and that ExonHit's SpliceArray technology "complements" Agilent's portfolio of microarray-based research tools.

Going Global

ExonHit's arrays will also benefit from "direct and indirect sales coverage for microarrays in all of our standard countries of operation," Harrison added.

Outside of ExonHit's home North American market, that means that its SpliceArrays will be sold directly through Agilent's offices in South Korea, China, Taiwan, India, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Brazil, and elsewhere globally.

ExonHit's Hedberg said that the company expects "the geographic breakdown of the SpliceArray market to follow that of the microarray market as a whole since any microarray user is a potential user of our technology."

"To date, most of [ExonHit's] business has been in North America," she said. "This probably reflects where we have focused our marketing effort," Hedberg added.

The prospect of access to Agilent's sales and marketing resources could therefore be promising for ExonHit, when one considers that most life science companies earn approximately one third of their annual revenues in Europe.

Agilent disclosed in its most recent annual report that 69 percent of its total revenue came from outside the United States.

Affymetrix, in its most recent 10-K, reported that it earned 31 percent of its 2005 product-related revenues in Europe and 14 percent in Japan. Applied Biosystems submitted similar figures in its July 2005 10-K, reporting that 34 percent of its net revenues were generated in Europe while 19 percent were generated in Asia Pacific.

Hedberg said that ExonHit will work with Agilent and its sales staff to promote SpliceArrays and said that ExonHit hopes the effort "will increase awareness in the community of our technology and build our market penetration."

ExonHit's main competitor in the splice variant array arena, Jivan Biologics, is also active globally, albeit only on a service level. According to Jivan spokesperson Jonathan Bingham, customers can now order experiments through Jivan that will be carried out by NimbleGen Systems' service labs in Iceland. Jivan and NimbleGen began working together in February (see BAN 2/7/2006).

According to Dan Clutter, NimbleGen's vice president of business development, at the moment, Jivan customers must place their orders through Jivan's office in Berkeley, Calif., to gain access to the NimbleGen service.

However, in the future, NimbleGen "would like to distribute [Jivan's] products through [its] normal services," Clutter said told BioArray News this week.

"This would go through our direct sales people and our distribution channels in Europe, Asia, and Australia. We still need to work out contractual terms and support issues with Jivan. These negotiations are underway," Clutter added.

Bingham told BioArray News last week that Jivan has noticed increasing global demand for its chips through the NimbleGen service since they became available earlier this year.

"We've seen increasing demand for splice variant arrays in the US, Europe, and Asia, especially interest in genome-wide splicing arrays as a replacement for gene expression arrays," Bingham said.

"We believe a global shift from gene arrays to splice variant arrays is now in its early stages," he added. "As customers shift to superior technology with greater biological relevance, the worldwide market is likely to grow rapidly in all of the places where gene arrays are now common -- primarily the US, Western Europe, and Japan, but also other countries and regions," Bingham said.

Product Expansion, and Affy Too

As Agilent and ExonHit begin to reach out into those markets, they will be selling ExonHit's current portfolio of SpliceArrays, which consist of gene family-specific splice variant arrays for the G protein-coupled receptor, ion channel, nuclear receptor, apoptosis, and cytokine gene groups as well as custom-designed chips.

But instead of continuing to add gene groups to its offering through individual SpliceArrays, Hedberg said that ExonHit now plans to offer customers access to a "probe library to monitor every known and potential splice event for the human genome."

"Once that is in place we will be able to instantly design any SpliceArray a customer could conceive. At that point our product offering will be limited only by the attributes of the array platforms of our partners -- the real estate and flexibility of production," she added. Hedberg said that the probe library should come online in "late summer."

Aside from its agreement with Agilent, as well as its in-house service, ExonHit's arrays are also offered through Affymetrix, which agreed to manufacture its SpliceArrays on its GeneChip platform last fall (see BAN 10/19/2005).

So far, Affy and ExonHit have released on the GeneChip platform two catalog SpliceArrays -- an apoptosis SpliceArray and a druggable gene family array -- that are available through the SpliceArray service or as catalog products from Affymetrix, Hedberg said. However, ExonHit and Affy have not announced a distribution or co-marketing agreement yet. Instead, all customers that wish to obtain ExonHit's chips on the GeneChip platform must be licensed by ExonHit first.

She added that ExonHit can also do custom designs for the Affy platform but declined to comment on sales and marketing deals involving "other companies" other than to say that ExonHit is "in discussions with several."

— Justin Petrone ([email protected])

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