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Ocimum, Refocusing on Pharma Services, to Discontinue Catalog OciChips

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By Justin Petrone

Ocimum Biosolutions will soon stop selling some of its catalog OciChips as it looks to focus on its business as a contract services provider for pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

The decision is due in part to diminishing demand for the arrays, and the Hyderabad, India-based firm envisions eventually offering only custom OciChips for specific projects, according to its highest official.

"We have needed to integrate all parts of business to be a real outsourcing partner in the pharma world," CEO Anuradha Acharya told BioArray News last week. Part of that process will include discontinuing some catalog OciChips.

"Unless it is a significant site or customized, it doesn't make sense for our partners to work on that platform," Acharya said. She added that the company will continue to allow its clients to access most commercial array platforms, as Ocimum is a certified Affymetrix, Agilent, and Illumina service provider.

Array sales have not been sluggish either. According to Acharya, they still make up more than half of privately held Ocimum's genomic services revenues. Ocimum's other two businesses are lab-sample and -data management and bioinformatics.

"The OciChip is not a huge part of the business, but we are running a lot of Affy, Illumina, and Agilent arrays," said Acharya. "With our own platform, we are getting out of the catalog business and catering to specific requests."

She did not provide a timetable for when the chips will be discontinued.

International Growth

Ocimum acquired its microarray platform from MWG Biotech five years ago (BAN 3/2/2005). The technology was subsequently re-launched as the OciChip platform, with a catalog menu that included whole-genome expression arrays for human, mouse, rat, Arabidopsis, zebrafish, and other organisms.

This year, Ociumum launched a line of microRNA OciChips. The company also designed a microarray for Sulfolobus solfataricus, the "archaeal model organism of choice for a systems biology approach to study the evolution and characteristics of central cellular functions in living cells" (BAN 6/1/2010).

That chip was designed with the SulfoSys project, an ongoing European study of the central carbohydrate metabolism of S. solfataricus and its regulation under temperature variation. According to Acharya, Ocimum envisions making versions of the OciChip for similar projects in the future.

If a partner needs to "do something that needs customization we will do it," said Acharya. "Part of the whole logic is to get arrays to the right consortiums or companies that need specific chip designs. We are focusing more on being able to cater to a specific request. If we can do it cheaper, faster, better, we'll do it."

Acharya stressed that microarray services are "still a significant part" of Occimum's business. At the same time, she noted that the firm has experienced a "slow shift" in its service projects as companies that have traditionally used Affy GeneChips began adopting other platforms.

Currently, for US and European clients, most arrays are processed through Gene Logic, an Ocimum subsidiary based in Gaithersburg, Md. However, Acharya said that Ocimum is building a new, 5-acre site in Hyderabad that should open next year. Once operational, Ocimum can "offer the same services with same quality certification" to Asian customers, she said.

Acharya expects "a lot more business" to move to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and said that she has been "impressed" by Ocimum's performance in these regional markets over the past year. She did not elaborate.

"In Asia, all of the pharma companies are looking at a cost base that is lower and a talent pool that is growing," she said. "Certain governments are also supporting a lot of activities. In the Middle East, capital is not a problem but resources are, so that allows us to expand in those markets."

'All the Pieces Together'

Founded in 2000, Ocimum Biosolutions has built a global genomic services company both through internal development and strategic acquisitions.

After buying MWG's array assets in 2005, the company scooped up Dutch oligo manufacturer Isogen Life Science in 2006, and the following year paid $10 million for the genomics division of Gene Logic (BAN 10/23/2007).

With Gene Logic, Ocimum gained three databases of expression profiles: BioExpress, for human biology, ToxExpress, for toxicology profiling; and the Ascenta data-analysis system, which provides microarray gene-expression profiles from more than 1,500 tissue sample sets from human and animal disease models.

Ocimum has since the acquisition used its array resources to add data to the databases, particularly on the central nervous system. The company also plans to give customers the ability to annotate the publicly available data together with their own data — a functionality that Acharya said will become available in the next few months.

The company is also seeing a "significant increase in demand for its pre-clinical and clinical service offerings in the genomics and genetics areas, some of which has been based on the array platforms," Acharya said. Ocimum recently appointed Norrie Russell, an AstraZeneca alumn, as president of Gene Logic to "enhance its presence in the clinical and pre-clinical space," she added.

Looking forward, Ocimum plans additional bioinformatics offerings, including a custom software design service. "We will help customers develop the custom software they need, given our expertise building 10 to 12 products over the past ten years, mostly in the array and sequencing data generation space," Acharya said.

"We have stitched the entire puzzle together across a broad spectrum of capabilities and we call our model 'Research as a Service '," she said. Acharya added that the company works with pharmaceutical and biotech partners on every step of a project. "This starts from searching and sourcing samples, storing and banking samples to tracking of samples, sample processing and data generation, and, of course, data analysis and reporting, over the whole range of research, pre-clinical and clinical work either across a company or across multiple collaborations."

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