In the heart of its massive Sullivan Park corporate research and development facility in western New York, glass-making giant Corning has an “innovation hallway” where it displays some of the key products developed in its 153-year history as a company.
One such product is a white dining plate, embossed with an blue glass rose of the cornflower pattern produced under the Corelle Livingware brand in the 1970s. The company’s microarray team, which last week hosted BioArray News for a briefing on its product line, makes a direct link between the skill and knowledge that went into making this elegant household product and the company’s next-generation microarray slides, which will be introduced this week at the EuroBiochips conference in Hamburg, Germany.
Corning is releasing for beta testing a three-dimensional substrate for its microarray slide product line. Like the blue rose on the plate, the new GAPS 3D slides consist of Corning’s flat-glass substrate with a light-colored layer 1.1 millimeters thick underlying another layer of surface chemistry some 20 to 40 micrometers thick. The surface is impervious to fingernail scratches but not to DNA, enabling — because of the material’s porosity, the company said — a greater surface area for increased efficiency of immobilization and retention of the printed probe.
The launch of this next-generation product comes nearly three years after Corning dissolved its Corning Microarray Technologies business (see BAN 10/26/2001), a nascent venture into commercializing high-density preprinted microarrays. The disbanding of the CMT business came in the midst of the crash of the high tech and dot-com industries, and with it a shrinking of demand for the fiber-optic cable Corning produces, forcing the company to restructure to face a diminished marketplace.
The halt of the CMT business unit, however, did not mean Corning left the microarray arena: The company has continued to sell microarray slides, and now reagents, in a deal with Promega (see BAN 9/10/2003).
“The key to everything is the substrate, and that is what we concentrate on,” said Rich Happell, business manager for the array technology solutions unit.
In fact, the company has published a new product catalog of 14 pages, listing some 43 different products ranging from hybridization chambers, cover glass, 384-well printing plates, GAPS and UltraGAPS microarray slides, reagents, epoxide slides, and mailer containers in the company’s Corning Life Sciences orange.
“We made the leap to CMT to leverage all of the things we had done in our business and to bring those product concepts to our customers,” Andrew Ferrie, business development manager for Corning’s advanced microarray products, told BioArray News. “We are transferring that technology to our customers.”
The GAPS [gamma-amino-propyl-silane] 3D slides are an extension of the company’s GAPS 2 and UltraGAPS product lines, he said.
Cheryl Gingras, business intelligence manager and the product manager for the GAPS 3D line, said the new product differs from other 2D/3D microarray slide applications.
“This is glass on glass,” she said. “While other 3D chemistries are made of nylon or nitrocellulose, this is a stable surface that has been coated with our proprietary GAPS coating process and effectively can transition into standard print operations using quill pin and solid-pin technologies, with the expectation of ink-jet technologies [too].”
The new microarrays are manufactured to the standard 1x3 slide format.
They can be read on the widely available Axon and PerkinElmer scanners but not Agilent’s.
“[The Agilent] scanner scans through the bottom of the slide, through the glass,” said Ferrie. “We believe that can be solved using a new slide holder where we could change the focal length of the instrument to read these slides.”
Such a slide holder is not in the plans today, though it could be developed, in conjunction with Agilent, to answer to a market demand, he said.
Corning Microarrays Today
Last summer, Corning reorganized its microarray business, which is managed through the company’s life sciences segment. The unit was organized in 1953 to sell special laboratory glass, such as the Pyrex brand, and the polymer products the company manufactures and is one of the oldest continuing businesses within the company.
The reorganization, said Happell, a 12-year-veteran of the company who took the helm of the business unit last summer, was designed to refine its focus and included the addition of business managers and business units.
“What we found is that we weren’t getting as much expertise and we weren’t getting as intimate with the customers as we need to be,” Happell said.
Happell’s array technology solutions unit numbers some 25 people dedicated to microarray products and is organized into business development; research and development; applications; and manufacturing. Happell also manages a share of the company’s genomics products such as PCR plates and tubes, and filter tubes and plates.
The company’s microarrays are manufactured in a production facility 10 miles east of Corning, in Big Flats, while the R&D facilities are situated closer to corporate headquarters, on a mountaintop with a commanding view of the area. The company does its polymer manufacturing in Kennebunk, Me., and has a commercial unit in Acton, Mass.
The microarray unit has close ties to the R&D facility and the manufacturing facility. Both facilities are secured. Even visiting Corning employees have to present identification and sign-in, and hand over cell phones with cameras, to enter the R&D facilities. And that’s after entering a parking lot under video-camera surveillance.
The company, which was founded in Somerville, Mass. in 1851, moved to Corning and took the name of the town for its business, and now employees refer to the area as the Corning valley, though properly, it is the Chemung Valley.
Corning follows a traditional centralized model of corporate research and development and locates its business development unit as a bridge between product development, manufacturing, and commercialization.
Corning’s GAPS microarrays leverage the company’s flat-screen glass technology, which uses aluminum borosilcate glass. Advances in flat-screen technology produce ever larger sheets of the material, to meet demand for bigger and bigger units like flat-screen panels for computer monitors or monitors for televisions. The material is manufactured in a vertical draw process. Finished sheets are 1.1 millimeters thick and are cut to microarray size, with the edges polished.
Traditional sheet-glass-making involves taking molten glass and pouring it over a high density fluid. However, this glass is not very flat and requires a polishing process, making it unusable for microarrays.
The microarray unit buys its glass from the flat-panel unit and then adds the surface chemistry to create the arrays.
The new 3D slides will cost approximately double the price of a standard slide, said Happell.
“It will cost us more to manufacture than the standard 2D slide,” he said. “We have done a fair amount of market data collection and have found that customers are willing to pay more if it performs the way we found in our development.”
Happell said the company has produced internal data that points to “significant increases in sensitivity” with the arrays.
“We are not going out and releasing the information as we are still trying to get customer confirmation on it,” he said.
“We have benchmarked it against competitor’s products that may be similar, but we believe that this is completely novel compared to most of the other substrates out there because of the glass-on-glass formation,” said Ferrie.
Corning sells its arrays into the so-called self-spot microarray market, which it says is divided into those who coat their own microarrays and those who buy pre-coated chips. The company also says it sells to commercial microarray manufacturers, but doesn’t divulge any sales figures or partnerships.
The company, said Happell, is seeing a gradual shift in the self-spot market, with more in the coat-your-own segment now opting to buy commercially prepared slides.
The company is particularly strong in the European market, according to Happell, which is why this product is being introduced at the EuroBiochips show: “Our European sales are a higher percentage of total sales than any other product line in our division,” he said.
Growth for the company’s unit will come from sales of commercially coated slides and new applications, said Gingeras.
The self-print market will grow, said Ferrie.
“A lot of new users are coming into this market,” he said. “We believe that most of those are going to be worldwide, like Australia, Japan, Korea, and Singapore. It’s an untapped market and it is growing. If we show these products to customers in those areas, they are eager to buy them.”
“The market need is for more-enhanced substrates and a key element of that is sensitivity,” said Happell. “We want to provide the substrates that help customers get more reliable data.”