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Exploiting miRNA Boom, LC Sciences Adds qRT-PCR to Its Gene-Expression Service

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LC Sciences, a Houston-based genomics and proteomics services company, recently added to its menu a quantitative RT-PCR service for microRNA profiling.
 
LCS’ new offering, which it launched last month, employs Applied Biosystem’s miRNA TaqMan assays. The firm is marketing the assays as a way to validate miRNA expression data generated with its internally developed line of µParaflo microfluidic arrays.
 
“The qRT-PCR service was started because so many of our customers are publishing,” said Chris Hebel, director of business development at LCS. The firm’s clients are “primarily academic researchers and in order to publish microarray data they have to validate it,” he told BioArray News this week.
 
MiRNA expression-profiling data is usually validated using qRT-PCR or Northern blot, Hebel said. He explained that because LCS serves customers worldwide, it makes sense for them to request qRT-PCR as well as miRNA expression profiling for their samples.
 
“We are truly a global operation,” he said. “Once we get those microarray results, if they want to do the validation, it makes sense to do it here; it’s more convenient and it gives them one more step towards their publication.”
 
LCS’s service went on line at a time as other companies offering tools for miRNA profiling, such as Exiqon and Asuragen, have decided to complement array-based services with qRT-PCR.
 
Last October, Austin, Texas-based Asuragen licensed real-time quantitative PCR technology from Roche Molecular Systems (see BAN 10/9/2007). Exiqon, based in Copenhagen, Denmark, offers its own MiRCURY locked-nucleic acid microRNA PCR system to customers for expression data validation. Also last year Febit, Agilent Technologies, and Illumina debuted miRNA-profiling chips
 
According to Hebel, the market is being driven by an “explosion” in the amount of scientific literature related to miRNA and a desire by an expanding number of academic researchers to publish their work ahead of others. He said that LCS has positioned itself to serve this primarily academic market by offering a complete service with different technologies for clients that typically do not wish to run the assays themselves.
 
“I think the nature of the field is that there are researchers coming from all areas of research because they are seeing the new publications and they are wondering if [miRNA] is involved in their system,” Hebel said. “They want to know what is going on, they want the answer, and they want it quickly. They are not terribly concerned what the technology is and have no desire to take the time out to run the arrays. We thought that adding these two services would help in that regard.”
 
Because of this dynamic, Hebel said that speed is actually more relevant in the market than pricing. LCS’ typical turnaround is two weeks for its miRNA microarray service, though it also has a five-day rush service for “researchers trying to hit deadlines.”
 

“There are a lot of companies out there that do gene expression and genotyping and array comparative genomic hybridization. We do not intend to compete there.”

The miRNA array market is a “highly competitive research area,” Hebel said. “Everyone wants to be the first to describe miRNA acting in a particular system, so speed is the most important for them.”
 
µParaflo
 
LCS has also looked to compete in the market by capitalizing on its chip format. Unlike its rivals, LCS uses a microfluidic chip called µParaflo that is manufactured in-house at its Houston headquarters. Hebel said that the µParaflo format enables the firm to quickly synthesize its miRNA arrays each time the Wellcome Trust Sanger Center’s mirBASE database of validated miRNAs is updated. The company most recently updated its µParaflo chips following the upgrade of miRBASE to version 10.1 in December.
 
“Our array is essentially a custom array,” Hebel said. “It’s not a spotted array or pre-synthesized array.” Hebel said that LCS puts “all known miRNAs” on its chips and “in addition to that whatever predicted miRNAs LCS’ [customers] would like to add.”
 
While the firm has built its reputation as a miRNA array shop, Hebel said that LCS is actually looking to position itself as specialty applications firm, distancing itself from larger players like Illumina or Agilent. The company currently produces peptide arrays and has introduced chips for studying aptamer binding. In January it also debuted a gene-expression service, though Hebel said that the service is more for miRNA customers than a direct challenge to the current market for expression-profiling technologies.
 
Customers want to know “what are the targets of the [up- or down-regulated miRNA],” Hebel said. “In order to verify what the targets are they can go ahead and look at the gene-expression profile of the same samples where they have the miRNA profile, and they can correlate the results.”
 
“The way we see ourselves positioning the company is microarrays for specialty application,” he explained. “There are a lot of companies out there that do gene expression and genotyping and array comparative genomic hybridization. We do not intend to compete there.”
 
While LCS builds its reputation in academia — the company claims that its technology has been used in 30 published studies since the service became available — the miRNA market has also been moving closer to the pharmaceutical and molecular diagnostics markets.
 
For instance, in December Asuragen raised $18.5 million in Series B funding and said it would use the cash to develop its clinical diagnostics business. In November, Exiqon agreed to acquire Oncotech, a West Coast testing firm, for $45 million in stock in an effort to put the infrastructure in place to support an eventual roll-out of miRNA-based tests (see BAN 12/11/2007, BAN 11/27/2007).
  
Hebel said that LCS does have some pharma and biotech customers, but that the “bulk of [its] customers” are in academia because the field is relatively new. “It is starting to filter into industry and they are looking at miRNAs as biomarkers for disease,” he said. “It is becoming clear that they are extremely important in very many biological systems and in the near future they will make excellent biomarkers and diagnostic indicators of disease.”
 
LCS is positioning its technology for eventual diagnostic use in the future, but it is an “expensive and time consuming process,” Hebel said. “We definitely see the potential there for a platform like ours to be used in the capacity as a diagnostic. We have got our eye on that for the future.”

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