One of the main themes of the first annual World Microarray Congress held last weekend in Vancouver, BC, was the increasing market for array-based point-of-care diagnostic tests, like Roche’s AmpliChip or Agendia’s MammaPrint, that use microarray technology to supplement the work of healthcare professionals prescribing drug therapies for their patients. Like many of its peers, a team of Japanese researchers based in Nagasaki are hard at work developing its own diagnostic tests. However, the team led by Mitsubishi and the Nagasaki Industrial Promotion Foundation is not working on diagnostic tests for cancer patients, but tests for the environment.
The Mitsubishi/NIPF team has spent the past four years developing array-based tests for environmental condition known as red tide — the harmful algal blooms that often transmit neurotoxins to surrounding sea life. The two are also close to developing a device that can be used in fish farms to detect harmful bacteria. During the World Microarray Congress, Edward Barlaan, a researcher from the Nagasaki Industrial Promotion Foundation, gave a talk about the work being done by his organization and Mitsubishi to develop the red tide and fish-pathogen-detecting tests. BioArray News caught up with him shortly after his presentation.
What is the Nagasaki Industrial Promotion Foundation and what do you do there?
I am a researcher with the NIPF. NIPF is a semi-government, semi-private organization, non-profit that joins in regional collaborative entities like this one with Mitsubishi. NIPF is developing new technologies that will be of course commercial at some point. They are one of the sections of Japan’s technology investment.
So people were surprised to hear that this project is being pursued by Mitsubishi, which is famous for its cars …
(Laughs) and appliances and electricity...
But how long has Mitsubishi been working with microarrays and can you describe the scope of its work?
We purchased the platform in 2001 from Nanogen.
Nanogen also has a relationship with Hitachi. One of Nanogen’s board members is from Hitachi.
They have an agreement that Hitachi is a distributor for Nanogen in Japan. So they have the license. But I think the agreement has passed.
But you wouldn’t be competitors
No, we are just users of Nanogen.
How are you making the device for detecting red tide?
We have been working with Nanogen’s equipment — and we will use this technology later to run an environmental sample. The one we are working on now is the prediction of red tide. So what we did was just used the HPLC. We extract the samples and identify the patterns that cause the red tide. We identify the bacteria, identify and sequence them, and once we do the sequence we make a probe, and after making a probe, we print it on a DNA chip.
Is red tide a big problem in Japan?
Yes, especially during summer. Not only in Japan, but in Southeast Asia also.
So that would be your primary market?
Is it close to being commercialized?
No, no, no. We are still at the research stage.
Do you have any idea about when it may become commercially available?
That depends on the results of the experiment right now. Because we have been collecting the data for the past two years, and this year, and we will try to test the probes this year to see if these probes can really detect or not. So we are still in this development stage. So once we get it then we plan to have it patented like that.
What about the fish-pathogen detector? How far along is that in development?
Here is what happened. Our goal was to make a DNA chip for pathogen detection for fish that would be useful for fish farms. So we developed different probes, different probes, different probes — to detect the respective species causing the diseases. Then we developed its protocols, and we wanted to have the device commercialized but then the project coordinator said we better focus our attention on red tide. With the procedures and protocols, it’s a matter of implementing it. Maybe in the future they will make the platform.
What kind of resources did you put into developing the red tide test?
Our team for monitoring for red tide consists of one group that works with the plankton that causes the red tide. They have to decide what are those species and make the genotypes. And we have the particular aspects of the bacteria. We identify the bacteria associated with this kind of plankton.
Ideally, who would use this test?
Primarily the Nagasaki provincial government — they are the ones responsible for [dealing with] that, so they can use it in their own locations for the prediction of red tide so that they can have better approaches [for detecting it] in the future.
You mentioned the Nagasaki province. Is your funding private or are you receiving funding from them?
They have different collaborative relationships with companies and foundations and they have provided us with money.
What are they using to detect red tide now?
They have different optical-based sensing devices, not microarray-based.
Would your technology aim to replace it?
No, it would be more of a supplement to what they are using.
You have decided to forego using fluorescence and use electrochemical detection instead. Why?
You get your results in a faster and more convenient way. Another advantage is price because the other method is too expensive.
A lot of microarray companies are focused on developing diagnostic tests or applications for biodefense. Why did Mitsubishi decide to go into array-based detection of red tide or pathogens for fish farmers?
They are more concerned now with the environmental aspects of their production. Especially in Nagasaki, they are building ships and there’s a lot of activity going on in the ocean like that. There’s chemical pollution and different kinds of raw materials there. They upset the environment. They are trying to make use of the molecular biological methods to detect, using indicators, like the DNA chip, [to determine] whether there is pollution going on. It’s another kind of approach from the molecular level.
I’ve noticed that there are a number of Japanese companies that are using gene expression for things like genetic food identification as well. Do you have any insight as to why Japanese companies have been developing these other applications for the microarray technology other than going after the clinical diagnostic market?
I am not sure if I should be one to guess, but I guess that they are exploring the possibilities available to them and turning to molecular biology. They are looking for what’s new, or what could be another alternative.