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At Lab Automation Trade Show, Array Industry Home-Brew Technology Makers Are Optimistic

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Is the homebrew microarray industry toast?

Certainly, the giants of the pre-printed arrays market, the California-based companies that have developed methods for mass-producing microarrays, are drawing a fluorescent bulls-eye on those who make their own microarrayers and slides.

Affymetrix and Agilent together command the lion’s share of the off-the-shelf technology market, which is considered less than 50 percent of the total market.

Neither of those companies hosted booths at the Lab Automation trade show last week at San Jose, Calif., but pre-printed array customers from pharma, academia, and government, who also print their own arrays, were there. Some 4,100 people attended the conference, which ended on Thursday.

This is not a microarray conference; it addresses the much broader market for robots and other systems that facilitate the development of high-throughput laboratory experimentation. But this market is embracing microarraying technology, and the automation that goes with it, judging from the number of vendors from the microarray industry who showed up, and the topics on the conference agenda.

Pat Brown Robots to Automated Dx

Today, countless hundreds of scientists are using a manufacturing technology of automation unleashed by Pat Brown, Joe DeRisi, and Dari Shalon of Stanford University, who in the 1990s, posted online their plans for an arraying robot that would cost a user $25,000 for materials. (Click here to visit Pat Brown’s Old MicroArray Page).

Today, you can buy a factory-made arrayer with a capacity of 50 chips, with environmental controls, for $54,000. Or, you can buy an 11-slide arrayer, with humidity controls, for $35,000. Or, if you are setting up an industrial production facility, you can buy an arrayer than can print 450 slides at a time. Price? $285,000. The companies will service them for you, set them up, and sell you the reagents you need to get them going. You buy tips for the machines whose design is based on intellectual property owned by TeleChem or by Incyte.

Some ten years into the development of the array market, it is still considered cheaper to do it yourself, with the point of demarcation between the two markets seen as the $100 chip, the magic price that some in the industry think will be the inflection point for converting the swayable home-brew users.

Right now, the pre-printed array giants are creating new inventory that goes beyond the essential model organisms of human, rat, and mouse, but aren’t responding with any drastic lowering of array prices, and perhaps that’s where the battle lies.

“It’s coming down to cost per chip and how low can they go,” said Sue Richards, marketing director for Genetix, the New Milton, UK-based company displaying its aQuire line of arrayers on the show floor.

But perhaps this changeover will only happen when the big players can array genetic information from a flying squirrel on a chip, as one of the customers of Genomic Solutions needs, according to John D’Errico, the company’s manager of genomics.

“Home-brew is not going away,” D’Errico said. “If people can afford to cast a big net and see what you catch with Affymetrix, they will go back and say, ‘Here are the genes,’ and then scale down and spot them.”

Genomic Solutions’ parent company, Harvard Bioscience, which sells reagents and lab supplies through its catalog and e-mail networks, has made a big bet on the technology and has served as a consolidator of sorts by acquiring Genomic Solutions for $26 million in 2002, and recently GeneMachines ($8.1 million in March 12, 2003) and BioRobotics (for $3.2 million in Sept. 19, 2003).

“The strategy is to surround functional genomics,” said D’Errico. The company offers six arrayers from the 11-slide Micro Arrayer, to the $180,000 Omnigrid 300 capable of print runs of 308 slides, picking from 72 different microtiter plates. The company has a global installed base of well over 400 sites. It also offers automated hybridization stations, and scanners, and has an OEM agreement with PerkinElmer.

Certainly the automated spotting of nucleic acid onto a substrate has matured as a market, but that same equipment can also be used to do the same thing with proteins, and that’s a market that is bubbling up alongside the diagnostics market.

In fact, Carlsbad, Calif.-based AutoGenomics is preparing to roll out in July a new platform to automate genomic and proteomic analysis, creating a tabletop system designed for the clinical laboratory industry, using film-based (acetate) microarrays that will contain disease-specific probes for molecular diagnosis and an 80-gig hard drive for storing the data from the analysis on board.

“We are attempting to integrate into one platform the islands of automation in the lab — bioinformatics, sample-handling, scanning, hybridization, and fluidics,” Ram Vairavan, vice president for sales and marketing, said in a presentation at the conference.

More automation may allieviate the problem and the costs of imprecise human-assisted processes.

Even Affymetrix is shopping in the automation bazaar. The company is using off-the-shelf automation to build its High Throughput Array system, taking an open systems approach to the market, said John Palma, associate director of clinical and applied genomics research and development for Affymetrix, who spoke at the conference.

— MOK

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