Febit Biotech this week launched its RT-Analyzer, a less-expensive benchtop version of its Geniom One platform that the company hopes will expand its installed base among array users both in its European home market as well as North America.
In addition, Febit plans to expand its presence in the catalog-array market. So far the company has offered its own microRNA biochips as catalog products. Now the company plans to debut 14 separate catalog arrays by this summer.
The Heidelberg, Germany-based company had planned a spring launch for the RT-Analyzer but made the system available at the Analytica biotechnology trade show held in Munich this week. According to Chief Scientific Officer Peer Stähler, Febit views the RT-Analyzer as the final piece in a portfolio that also includes the Geniom One, which enables researchers to synthesize arrays, as well as its services business, for those who would rather outsource their research products.
Stähler described the RT-Analyzer, which has a list price of €90,000 ($140,700), as a simplified version of its Geniom One instrument, which costs €200,000. They key difference between the two, beside their price, is that the RT-Analyzer has a smaller footprint and cannot synthesize arrays. Instead, it allows users to process and analyze arrays, which are bought directly from Febit.
Febit sees the RT-Analyzer as a replacement for array systems in many labs that use separate instruments for the hybridization and wash steps of an array experiment, for example.
“Instead of three or four instruments you just need one,” Stähler told BioArray News this week. “It will control the processes of the arrays by itself; it integrates what you formerly would have spread between four platforms. At the same time you have high-tech, in situ arrays synthesized by our platform.”
The RT-Analyzer is intended “for people who don’t like services and don’t want the full system,” Stähler said. As part of its effort to reach this segment of the array market, Febit is expanding its footprint in the market for catalog arrays with plans to debut 14 separate catalog arrays by summer, a change in direction that Stähler said still gives customers access to flexible array design.
“We find that a lot of users would like to have a validated array design that they can rely on — they would like something that is preconfigured and tested,” he said. “If you still want to customize you still can, it's no problem, but now we can give people a choice.”
This first group of catalog arrays will mainly comprise new microRNA arrays based on the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute’s miRBASE database of validated microRNAs, as well as human pathway expression profiling arrays. Stähler described microRNA analysis as the “key application” for the RT-Analyzer, but said that many more applications were in the firm’s pipeline.
“I estimate that in a year from now we will have over 50 catalog arrays available — all the major organisms such as mouse, rat, and Drosophila,” he said. “Basically everything that is sequenced can be addressed, and we will start with those that are used the most. Obviously biomedical researchers use human, mouse, and rat, while for cancer research miRNA is the hottest area.”
“If you still want to customize you still can, it's no problem, but now we can give people a choice.”
He added that the launch of catalog array designs could open up some business opportunities for labs that already own the Geniom One. Though most chips will be produced at Febit’s facility in Heidelberg, the company will allow its customers to resell chips that they synthesize in their labs.
“That opens up for you an opportunity to make some nice money when you have a special validated array design that you are using,” Stähler said. “You could also resell the array design to us and we would provide it as a catalog array.”
Commensurate with the roll-out of a catalog array portfolio will be an upgrade of the kinds of services Febit provides online. Stähler said that Febit is working on a new web interface that will enable users to order catalog arrays online, as well as to customize arrays. Additional analysis tools will also be available over the Internet.
Stähler said that Febit would be offering online analysis tools “for upstream of the array experiment and tools for downstream.” Febit will make the tools available through collaboration with an external bioinformatics company, which Stähler declined to name, as well as Febit’s own internal bioinformatics R&D team, which is based at its US office in Medford, Mass.
The bioinformatics R&D team was developed by Anthony Caruso, Febit’s vice president of bioinformatics. Caruso joined the company last year and previously served as president of Lion Bioscience.
Another symbol of Febit’s expansion into the North American market came this week as the firm announced the formation of a scientific advisory board. Febit in the past had “formal and informal advisors” but had never created a board until now (see People, this issue).
Two members of Febit’s new SAB directly link the company to other array businesses on the West Coast. One is Marc Chee, a former scientist at both Affymetrix and Illumina who now heads Prognosys Biosciences. The San Diego-based start-up last autumn launched a service together with Febit that allows users to sequence microbial genomes using the Illumina Genome Analyzer and then have arrays synthesized by Febit using the Geniom One (see BAN 9/25/2007).
Another member is Mostafa Ronaghi, a co-founder of technology firms ParAllele Bioscience, now part of Affymetrix; and Pyrosequencing, now Biotage. Ronaghi “invented pyrosequencing and developed ParAllele’s molecular inversion-probe technology,” said Stähler. “He's pretty impressive and has a network of interesting contacts.”
Stähler said that the development of the SAB plus the increased R&D headcount in its Medford, Mass., office signals how the firm has become “more US oriented” than it was in the past. “The US is still the leader in genomics,” he said. “We will now be much more in the middle of where things are created and going on. It is part of a bigger, strategic move to connect more intensely with the US market.”
As Febit looks to launch catalog chips for its RT-Analyzer, the firm is also prepping its HybSelect service for use on the benchtop system as well. HybSelect is an application designed for use on the Geniom One that enables “genome partitioning,” or the selection of areas of interest within the genome for sequencing, as opposed to sequencing the entire genome.
“Basically, we use the array as part of the sample preparation process,” Stähler said. The customer’s sample is hybridized to a whole human genome array, the regions of the genome that the customer would like to sequence are identified, released from the array, and then run through a next-gen sequencer, enabling customers to discard regions they are not interested in from their sequencing runs while saving money on reagent costs.
“Depending on your study, you might not want to resequence the whole genome,” said Stähler. “Why should you use expensive reagents to sequence something that you don't want to sequence?” he said. HybSelect “reformats the genome before you go to the sequencer,” he added.
Stähler said that Febit is currently offering HybSelect to a number of undisclosed early-access customers and that a full, commercial launch of the service will occur later this year. He declined to discuss pricing.
The ability to perform HybSelect on the RT-Analyzer instead of the Geniom One is also being developed, but Stähler said there is no scheduled launch at this point.