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Joining Cadre of Next-Gen Arrayer Shops, Wasatch Microfluidics Plans for Q3 Debut

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University of Utah spinout Wasatch Microfluidics plans to release a new arrayer instrument sometime in the third quarter, the company said this week.
 
The two-year-old company, which currently employs fewer than 10 people, will be joining a growing list of rivals that have emerged in recent years, including UK-based Arrayjet and Aushon BioSystems, located in Burlington, Mass.
 
Wasatch CEO Josh Eckman told BioArray News this week that his company plans to launch its Continuous Flow Microarray spotter sometime in the fall with the help from a fresh investment round that could close over the next month.
 
Initially the firm will target antibody engineers and protein-array users, groups that others in the space say are driving the demand for new arrayers to replace existing ones, some of which are 10 years old.
 
The CFM, which can array 48 spots simultaneously, uses a parallel network of microchannels to cycle small-volume fluid samples over a surface to produce optimal binding. The company claims that when coupled with functionalized surfaces, the method allows for concentration enhancement on the microspot, and yields a higher sensitivity assay performance.
 
Eckman said that the applications the company is working on for the CFM are “mainly in the proteomics field ... due mainly to the difficulties in purifying and concentrating protein samples and the challenges of attaching proteins to a surface and creating a nice uniform monolayer."
 
Eckman said that the CFM is currently in the hands of undisclosed early-access collaborators in pharma and academia, including users at the University of Utah.
 
In the protein research market, collaborators are “very excited about our technology for several reasons," he said. "First, we can take a very dilute sample and enhance the concentration."
 
Eckman said some of Wasatch's early-access collaborators in pharma that are  studying low-expressing antibodies have found that standard array equipment yields poor-quality arrays because it cannot get enough material on the surface.
 
Additionally, Eckman said the it offers users the ability to perform localized interactions on a surface, such as capturing molecules of interest from complex mixtures.
 
"Many pharma collaborators have their antibodies that they've engineered and they would like to screen directly from these non-purified samples, essentially looking for the needle in the haystack," Eckman said. "We are able to do that —both allow them the ability on a spot to capture the molecule of interest and allow it to enhance the concentration down to levels that are currently not possible with other technologies."
 
Due to its interest in arraying proteins, Eckman said that Wasatch so far has not explored the DNA market. Still, he stressed that its technology in the future could be used for printing DNA, cells, lipids, and other biomolecules.
 

"There is no support available for many of the older instruments and the previous generation of instruments is also poorly matched to the new arraying challenges – particularly protein array fabrication."

The company has so far been funded by Utah state grants, but Eckman said that he hoped a round of fundraising with Western US-based angel investors could close by the end of this month or in May, and would help the firm market and sell the CFM.

 
A Rebounding Field
 
Wasatch's entry into the space follows closely the arrival of Aushon Biosciences, which closed a $7.8 million round of VC fundraising last December to help launch its 2470 Arrayer. Unlike Wasatch's CFM, the 2470 uses a 48-pin spotting pin printhead to array biomolecules (see BAN 12/12/2006).
 
Aushon President John Austin told BioArray News in an e-mail this week that the reason there has been an increase in activity in the arrayer market is because many of the first-generation systems are almost a decade old, prompting labs to update their tools to be able to create arrays for newer applications, like protein arrays.
 
"Most of the existing arrayers in the field were developed in the late ‘90s for the cDNA home-brew market," Austin wrote. "Many of these instruments are now long in the tooth and service is becoming a major problem for facility managers," he added. "There is no support available for many of the older instruments and the previous generation of instruments is also poorly matched to the new arraying challenges – particularly protein array fabrication.”
 
According to Austin, Aushon is seeing "strong interest" in its system and is selling to a "wide spectrum of clients, including academic, biotech, pharma, and government labs." Echoing Eckman, he said that the hottest area today for arrayer companies is in protein and lysate array fabrication.

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