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Nipping at Invitrogen s Heels, Exiqon to Enter miRNA Array Market Next Month


Invitrogen and Ambion are no longer alone in their quests to dominate the budding market for microRNA arrays. According to a company official, Exiqon, a privately held Danish company that has been developing its own line of microRNA products since earlier this year, will begin offering the arrays next month.

Søren Echwald, business development director at Copenhagen-based Exiqon, told BioArray News this week via e-mail that the move is part of the company's strategy to have products available for all microRNA applications, building on a portfolio the company has dubbed its miRCURY line.

Moreover, Exiqon's new arrays will compete directly against Invitrogen and Ambion, both of which have launched or pledged to launch similar arrays this autumn (see BAN 11/16/2005).

"[We have] been working on our miRCURY microRNA products since early 2004 and our first products were the miRCURY in situ and Northern blot detection probes, which we launched earlier this year followed by miRCURY knockdown probes and the first real-time PCR microRNA assays in May," Echwald said.

"We find it very important to be able to provide the full detection capabilities from the initial screening by microarrays to QPCR, Northern, or in situ detection as well as functional analysis by microRNA knockdown, and we are very close to getting there," he said.

"Looking at it this way, it is clear that microRNA arrays will grow to capture or even expand a significant part of this market and the close to 300 publications on microRNAs already this year seems to confirm this."

Still, at this point it is unclear where exactly "there" is. While such rivals as Ambion and Invitrogen are also enthused about the potential of a miRNA array market, the reality is that it is difficult to discern how large that market is or will be.

"From our analysis, the microRNA array market is still a fraction of the microarray market, but with an impressive growth potential," Echwald said, adding that the company prefers to keep "the detailed figures of [its] analysis in-house."

However, Echwald cited the growing number of publications on microRNAs as evidence of the market demand for the company's miRCURY arrays. "Looking at it this way, it is clear that microRNA arrays will grow to capture or even expand a significant part of this market and the close to 300 publications on microRNAs already this year seems to confirm this," he said.

Peter Joszi, who manages Invitrogen's NCode microRNA array system, also used the number of microRNA publications as a market indicator in an interview with BioArray News last week.

"We see an explosion over the last few years in the number of publications for microRNAs, so it's an extremely hot field right now," Jozsi said.

A search of the PubMed database revealed that 275 microRNA-related articles have been published in 2005, compared to 189 in 2004, 94 in 2003, 30 in 2002, and 2 in 2001.

A New Array and a New Sales Office

When Exiqon's microRNA arrays become available in December, the company will handle all sales and distribution for the product, Echwald said. Though Roche Diagnostics has been distributing the company's ProbeLibrary Real-time PCR product, Echwald said he does not anticipate bringing on distributors for the miRCURY arrays, except perhaps in Asia.

To better reach the North American market, Echwald said that Exiqon will open a sales and support office near Boston in the first quarter of 2006. The new Exiqon office will employ approximately 10 people and will "establish a US presence" for the company, he said.

The arrays they will be selling include an miR labeling kit, and kits for green, red and red/green fluorescence detection. In addition, an online tool for annotation that supports the miRCURY array product line will be ready for the launch in two weeks, as well as a number of supplementary reagents for microRNA detection, Echwald said.

The array itself contains microRNAs for human, mouse, rat, Zebrafish, C. elegans, and other organisms, and the shop is "currently working on getting new microRNAs for our array," Echwald said. The array holds four copies of all probes. Arrays cost $1,290 for a three-pack of arrays, $2,400 for a six-pack, and $8,290 for a 24-pack, he said. The miRCURY array labeling kit will cost customers $500 per 24 reactions.

In comparison, a five-pack of Invitrogen's arrays will cost $750, while the labeling system will cost users approximately $700 for 20 reactions, Invitrogen's Joszi said last week.

Invitrogen's arrays also include microRNAs for Drosophila, C. elegans, and zebrafish, plus the microRNAs for human, rat, and mouse.

Ambion's arrays, called mirVana miRNA microarrays, include only known human, mouse, and rat miRNAs spotted on GE Healthcare's CodeLink platform. According to Ambion's website, a single order of three slides, or six arrays, would cost a US customer $1,600.

Echwald said that Exiqon plans to distinguish itself in the market because its technology uses locked nucleic acids in its probes in order to augment hybridization affinity. He explained that LNAs are nucleotide analogs that bind very strongly to DNA and RNA, and were useful in this case because microRNAs are such short targets. In fact, before becoming microRNA array rivals, Exiqon licensed the technology to Invitrogen for use in its reagent kits.

"LNAs [allow] us to use less sample, currently about 1/10 of the amount used in competing products," Echwald said. "You can use down to 1 mg total RNA, which is 10 times less [than] other microRNA microarray providers recommend for their arrays." The LNA technology also shortens hybridization time and confers greater probe discrimination in experiments, he added.

Echwald said that the feedback from Exiqon's test users indicates "[its] LNA spiked probes in combination with [its] microRNA labeling kit outperform a number of the other providers in the market."

Exiqon has been licensing the LNA technology to Invitrogen since January 2005, according to the company's website. Echwald also pointed out that the LNA technology has been included in US Genomics' kits for its Trilogy platform since April 2004.

To fund this increase in commercial activity, Exiqon completed a third round of financing worth $20 million last June, bringing to $37 million its total funding since the company was founded in 1996. Investors in the company include Norway's Teknoinvest and Danish investors Scandinavian Life Science Venture, Nobel Group, LD Pensions, and Danske Bank, as well as Finland-based BioFund. Echwald said that the latest round of funding has left Exiqon with the "proceeds necessary for the next couple of years" and, with revenues expected to increase, the company is "not likely to require more funding."

— Justin Petrone ([email protected])