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ExonHit Employs Agilent Chips in New Service to Determine How Splice Variants Affect RNA Data

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French drug-discovery firm ExonHit Therapeutics last week launched a new services offering based on Agilent Technologies’ microarray platform that it claims is the first of its kind to offer comprehensive array services for determining splice variants.

According to ExonHit, the new service, called SpliceArray, uses Agilent’s microarray platform to detect alternative splicing in potential drug targets. Using ExonHit’s splice-variant content and probe design technology, the chips can monitor the expression of alternatively spliced exons at levels previously unattainable by standard microarrays, ExonHit said. The company is also providing customized analysis and chip-design services under the program.

ExonHit claims that the technology, which gives users the number of alternative splice variants in a sample, will produce a more thorough understanding of how splice variants in an RNA sample can affect data.

Pricing for SpliceArray chips starts at $2,100 for a microarray containing two samples. ExonHit said volume discounts will apply.

The offering currently provides services for G-protein coupled receptor and ion-channel gene family microarrays. Custom microarrays are also available. ExonHit said that other gene families will be available soon, including proteases, nuclear receptors, and kinases. The new microarrays will be introduced to the market on a monthly basis beginning in March or April, the company said.

Richard Einstein, ExonHit’s vice president of research, said that the firm had approached Agilent about using its platform in April 2004 after recognizing the demand for such a product from its clients.

“It has been very difficult to get at this information using the traditional high-throughput method. Usually scientists have to go through it one gene at a time. Nearly every scientist that we talked to said that they wanted access to this technology,” Einstein said. Einstein said that the service should attract the interest of state, commercial, and non-profit researchers alike.

To market the services, ExonHit is visibly displaying SpliceArray on its website and Einstein plans to visit potential customers through March. Seminars specifically devoted to SpliceArray are scheduled at the National Institutes of Health on March 7, as well as a special e-conference scheduled for March 16.

Einstein said that he will be speaking about splice variants at the Microarray and Medicines Conference on May 5 in Boston and that the company also plans to advertise the service.

Einstein said he could not estimate the potential size of the services market for alternative splicing arrays, but said that as of Feb. 4, one day after the offering was released, the company’s entire first run of the GPCR microarrays had been purchased by one of its clients. Einstein declined to name the client.

ExonHit and Agilent announced their partnership to develop the new technology three months ago (see BAN 11/17/2004), and Aram Mangasarian, ExonHit’s vice president of marketing, said the companies began collaborating on the SpliceArray service in April 2004.

Mangasarian would not disclose the financial details of the deal, but he did say that both companies had equally funded the research and design of the product.

Mangasarian said that although ExonHit is based in Paris, the service is being offered through the company’s American office in Gaithersburg, Md. Still, technically the service is available world-wide and Einstein confirmed that firm will market the service in Europe, although he said there were no future plans for a service office there.

As part of the alliance, Agilent said ExonHit has become a certified service provider, and has validated the company’s ability “to provide quality microarray processing and data analysis using Agilent microarrays.”

Christina Maehr, a spokesperson for Agilent, said the service is exclusively ExonHit’s, but that “it is quite likely that ExonHit will mention using Agilent microarrays in its web or marketing collateral” in the future.

Agilent will also participate with ExonHit in some future conferences, Maehr said, adding that she could not comment on any future services or products Exonhit and Agilent may be developing.

Opening the Market?

According to Mangasarian, ExonHit has created a new market with its technology. However, while ExonHit claims to be first in line to reach the market with SpliceArray, other companies have are expected to provide similar services in the near future.

For example, Affymetrix and NuGen Technologies announced in December 2003 that they planned to create a similar service using NuGen’s Whole Transcript Amplification system for use with Affymetrix GeneChip technology to provide users the entire transcriptome of the human genome, including splice variants, to users. (See BAN 12/10/03)

A spokesperson for NuGen said that the service they were developing with Affymetrix was still being designed and that she could not speculate on when it would be available.

Andrew Brooks, the director of the Functional Genomics Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said that he believed there was a demand for ExonHit’s service in the market.

“I think it will be for the custom array people who want to look at those regions, absolutely,” Brooks said of the service.

Brooks also said that he was unaware of similar services.

“There are so many different informatics companies that if you ask them a question about splice variants they’ll say ‘yes we’re happy to help you’ but I don’t think they are offering a specific service per se to help with that,” Brooks said.(See Q&A P. 6 for more of Brooks’ comments.)

— JP

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