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Firms That Sell Arrayers Continue to See 'Strong' Demand Despite Market Downturn

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While the current economic climate has hastened the demise of several biotech firms in recent weeks, such as DNAPrint Genomics and Codon Devices, companies that sell instruments for making microarrays say that their market segment has remained intact, and that they are actually seeing a rise in demand for their products.

Officials from Billerica, Mass.-based Aushon Biosystems and Roslin, UK-based Arrayjet separately told BioArray News this week that, in spite of overall market conditions, they are seeing increasing demand for their arrayers from pharmaceutical and biotech companies as well as academics.

"For us, the market has been very strong," Aushon CEO Pete Honkanen said. "We have seen it be adopted by centers that need to replace their old printing technology and are searching for a technology that is more flexible," he said. "It's also being placed in locations where the users want to produce an increasing variety of assays."

Aushon’s 2470 microarrayer enables users to print DNA, proteins, cell lysates, and other samples using its pin-based deposition technology. The system is automated and allows users to print onto various substrates, including slides, membranes, microtiter plate wells, disks, wafers, and chips.

Launched in 2006, the system has been adopted along with other arrayers, such as Arrayjet's suite of instruments, largely due to a rise in demand from customers using protein arrays in their research programs (see BAN 5/13/2008).

This week Arrayjet said it has placed four Marathon or Super-Marathon inkjet microarrayers in "key" microarray labs in North America over the past year: the University Health Network Microarray Centre in Toronto, the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md., Cornell University, and a "large" undisclosed Bay Area biotechnology company.

Arrayjet sells four arrayer models. The Marathon prints up to 100 slides from six 96-well or 384-well microtiter plates; the Super-Marathon includes a microplate stacker and automated lid lifter to enable the automated printing of microarrays from up to 48 microtiter plates; the Sprint enables the automated printing of up to 20 arrays; and the Ultra-Marathon is capable of printing up to a thousand slides in one run.

"Arrayjet has doubled its sales every year since we first commercialized our inkjet technology, and, despite the current economic climate, we’ve not yet seen a reduction in demand for our products," Duncan Hall, commercial director of the privately held firm, said this week.

According to Hall, though three of the four new customers announced this week are academic or government sponsored, many of Arrayjet's newer, unannounced customers are pharma or biotechs. Moreover, the firm is increasing the global scope of its business.

"Based on sales to date during our FY’09, we have every expectation of another good year this year, with strong indications for the future," Hall said. "In particular there are markets in which we are still comparatively new, such as Asia-Pacific, where we have seen quite rapid growth; meanwhile growth has been steadier in the European and North American markets."

Aushon's Honkanen also said that the Asian market shows promise for placements of the 2470. The firm is currently in the process of building a sales force in both Europe and Asia to handle demand, he said. Honkanen said that it would provide the names of its 2470 customers to BioArray News once Aushon receives their approval to do so.

From Arrayers to Assays

According to Honkanen, the arrayer market is driven mainly by "flexibility, ease of use, and the ability to print a variety of materials onto esoteric substrates" like microtiter plates or membranes.

But another area where companies that sell arraying instruments are expected to be competent is in assay development. For the past few years, Aushon had demonstrated the utility of the 2470 with a signature reverse-phase lysate assay developed by collaborators Lance Liotta and Emanuel Petricoin, co-directors of the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine at George Mason University.

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Aushon expanded its assay development resources last month with the acquisition of Thermo Fisher Scientific's SearchLight protein array assets. According to Honkanen, Aushon has always planned to specialize in the kinds of multiplex immunoassays that SearchLight offers. He said that the company developed the 2470 as part of its internal development towards that goal, and decided to commercialize the spotter because of its value as an array-manufacturing tool.

Joe Blanchard, Aushon's chief operating officer, told BioArray News this week that the company gained more than assays through the SearchLight purchase; it also gained the SearchLight personnel, their material equipment, the SearchLight probe library, and related IP.

Blanchard said that he sees SearchLight as a "huge opportunity" for Aushon, due to demand from the clinical trials segment of the pharma and biotech market for surveying biomarkers downstream using multiplex assays. According to Blanchard, whereas Fisher sold SearchLight products through its general sales force, Aushon now has four sales reps in the US to handle its products. He added that the firm had recently hired a general sales manager in the UK to build a European sales team, and Aushon is planning a similar sales effort in Asia.

Honkanen said that the 2470 complements the SearchLight business in that it gives Aushon a "significant edge in performance relative to the quality of an assay" produced by the arrayer. "This will allow is to produce a strong offering and enable us to move into larger related markets," he said.

Honkanen added that Aushon will this year look to expand SearchLight's probe library as it integrates the assets from the business unit into the firm. Blanchard said that SearchLight personnel and equipment, which had been based in nearby Woburn, will this year be relocated to Aushon's headquarters in Billerica.

Arrayjet's Hall said that the company is also considering making investments or deals that could bolster its expertise in assay development. "The success of our platform in protein microarray applications has opened up a number of avenues for the expansion of the business, and we are currently exploring a number of options," Hall said. He declined to elaborate.

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