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Olympus, PamGene Launch Low-Density Array; Both Companies Say There is More to Come

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This week, another homegrown player entered the hot Asian market for microarrays: Olympus Optical of Japan, which co-developed a low-density flow-through microarray system with Netherlands-based PamGene, has just begun selling the product in Japan and “all regions of Asia,” according to the company. Next year, a launch of the system is planned in Europe and the US, said Tim Kievits, CEO of PamGene.

The unit, called FD10, is priced at ¥ 12 million (about $100,000) and uses a flow-through chip developed by PamGene that contains four microarrays with up to 400 probes each. The instrument integrates hybridization and reading, features real-time signal detection, and allows control of the reaction temperature. Olympus wrote in a statement that it hopes to sell 100 units per year worldwide.

In the development of this platform, Olympus — which has expertise in manufacturing and marketing microscopes, endoscopes, and cameras — focused on the optical technology and on the manufacturing side, while PamGene worked on the rest of the instrument and provided its chip technology, according to Kievits. The chips, with their flow-through design and porous three-dimensional substrate, boast fast hybridization times.

The instrument is manufactured by Olympus in Japan, but the chips are made to order at PamGene’s manufacturing facility in Den Bosch in the Netherlands. Olympus also has rights to make a limited number of chips at its own facility, according to Kievits.

Moreover, Kievits said that Olympus has been developing off-the-shelf chips for toxicity studies in collaboration with three research groups at Nagoya City University, Osaka City University, and the Daiyu-kai Institute of Medical Science. According to Olympus, these collaborations also help in evaluating the instrument. The company is seeking more such projects with academic institutions to develop further applications. Catalog arrays are still in the development stage, Olympus said, and will be introduced at some later stage.

The main applications of the arrays are gene expression profiling, detection of gene mutations, and SNP detection, according to Kievits. However, the chip is not restricted to DNA probes; antibodies, peptides, or other molecules could easily be arrayed as well, he added. Olympus said it will test the arrays with “organic compounds” soon.

Olympus will initially market the system to academic researchers, pharmaceutical companies, and food manufacturers. While the high-density microarray market, served in Japan by Affymetrix and — more recently — Amersham, seems already crowded, Olympus sees opportunities for its low-density product in areas where the market is more segregated, according to a company spokesperson.

Olympus is also planning to develop PamGene’s array further “based on our accumulated technology of Olympus’ own glass slide array and capillary array,” the spokesperson said.

PamGene’s agreement with Olympus includes an equity investment in PamGene, upfront payments, and royalties, Kievits said, adding to the $6.7 million raised in its first financing round in late 2000 and two Dutch government grants totaling € 4 million it received in mid-2001.

Although Olympus is relatively new to the life science area, PamGene had several reasons to choose it as a partner, Kievits said. “First of all, Olympus is an extremely good instrumentation development company,” with extensive experience in optics and a worldwide market presence. Also, he was convinced that Olympus would be committed to the product, unlike the senior partner in other collaborations such as the one between ABI and Illumina. Olympus is “very eager to be very aggressive in the genomic area,” said Kievits. Combined, this made it the perfect partner, and the distance between Japan and the Netherlands did not take away from that. “Electronics is great nowadays, and if you travel enough back and forth, then it will work out,” Kievits said.

But PamGene, a 2000 spin-out of Akzo Nobel’s former diagnostics business unit Organon Teknika, which is now part of Biomerieux, has further plans for its technology that reach beyond the FD10. The company, which has grown from 27 to 44 employees this year so far, is currently working on a 96-well array system for high-throughput applications which it plans to launch near the end of next year. In this system, the flow-through chip will have the footprint of a microtiter plate and each well will contain an array with up to 400 probes.

At the moment, PamGene is developing content for these arrays, both at its own facility — for example for toxicology applications — as well as with several biotechnology firms and academic collaborators. Engineering companies, including a German optics instrumentation company, are helping to develop a prototype of the instrument, Kievits said.

To establish a third pillar for its business, PamGene is also planning to develop its flow-through chip for diagnostic applications, and has already seen interest from several diagnostic companies. “You need a specialized instrument for diagnostics,” Kievits said, that differs from an instrument for research applications. The company’s origin in a diagnostics unit might help: When PamGene’s technology was initiated, “the choices we made back then were to get a technology that was affordable for diagnostics,” as well as robust and easy to automate, said Kievits.

— JK

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