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Reusable Biochip by Fluidigm Moves Animal Genotyping toward $1 Mark

By Tony Fong

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Fluidigm has engineered a reusable integrated fluidic circuit for genetic testing, which the company said will drive down the cost for genetically testing food to as low as a penny per data point.

According to Fluidigm, the product is the first such microfluidic biochip that can be reused.

The technology was officially unveiled today in Washington, DC, by Fluidigm and the US Department of Agriculture, and will be launched later this summer. While the first use of the technology is directed at the agriculture-biotechnology sector, the potential applications for the technology could be wide-ranging and profound, Gajus Worthington, president and CEO of Fluidigm, told GenomeWeb Daily News.

The chip, called the FR 48, builds upon Fluidigm's Dynamic Array technology for SNP genotyping but was engineered according to what scientists at the USDA said they needed but weren't being provided, in particular in terms of costs associated with genetic testing of livestock. Such costs had become so expensive that they were hindering advances in research and preventing implementation of biomarkers that had been identified as being useful.

What was needed, USDA representatives told Fluidigm, was technology that would allow analysis at $.01 per data point, which could facilitate the testing of every single cow in the food supply chain for things such as cholesterol, milk quality, and meat quality in order to breed desired traits into the animals.

The company's 96.96 Dynamic Array and EP1 System had been used successfully on genetic research on salmon, and the USDA was interested in using it for livestock research. However, adapting the Fluidigm technology for the ag-bio industry proved daunting.

"I was pretty much stunned by the technical requirements," Worthington said. To make it work, the technology would have to be able to handle hundreds of millions of samples "so the throughput requirements for an individual machine are unlike anything that we'd heard of before."

In addition, any technology developed would have to be simple, straightforward, and fast. If it required sophisticated workflows with highly skilled technicians, the chances for adoption would be slim, Worthington said.

The first thing Fluidigm needed to do was build a cycler that would be fast enough to meet the throughput requirements: the result is the FC1 Cycler launched last month. Designed with "an ultrafast engine that can drive the chip as fast as the chemistry would go," the instrument, also reduces the thermal stress that the chip is exposed to by reducing the time that the chip is exposed to high temperatures, Worthington said.

The chip itself also had to be significantly modified from the version that was used on salmon. Fluidigm built thousands of pumps so that a researcher can "effectively scrub the channels from inside of the channel and pump out every last bit of material," Worthington said. Fluidigm also designed fluid flow channels and paths so that even trace amounts of fluids wouldn't get trapped.

Lastly, the company built into the chips devices that cycle at a frequency of 100 milliseconds so that reagents and the sample could be mixed properly to ensure high throughput.

Using the chips to analyze salmon genes, data were "indistinguishable," after multiple uses, Worthington said. The first iteration of the chips will be usable five times, but, he added, Fluidigm plans to increase that number.

Cleaning the chips requires they be put in a device for about two and a half hours, and then dried in an oven. The chips can be used on Fluidigm's BioMark system and the EP1 system, as well as the FC1 Cycler.

Fluidigm also says the FR 48 is the "world's first" reusable biochip architecture. Other companies and labs have been in various stages of designing chips that can be used, such as the Maryland Biochip Collaborative and the BioAnalytics Group at the Technical University of Munich in Germany.

German life sciences asset management firm Ascenion also offers licensing opportunities for a patch array technology that it says on its website is reusable. The technology was developed by undisclosed parties.

At a press conference today announcing the chip, Curtis Van Tassell, research geneticist at the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA, said that for the livestock industry, applications such as testing for animal parentage, traceability of the animal "from farm to fork," genetic prediction, and pedigree data, would benefit most from the advanced technology.

The technology, he and Worthington said, could enable an animal to be genotyped for $1 per animal. Initial customers in the ag-bio industry for the technology would be screening service providers, such as Expression Analysis, which has expressed an interest in the chip. Ultimately, the end-user market with the largest potential is the feedlot where the genetic testing would be done on location. It would be a few years before the technology would have significant penetration into that market.

Worthington added that the chip has implication beyond the cattle industry or even genotyping.

"It offers the ability to contemplate giving genetic measurements at cost structures and at throughputs that were previously unthinkable," he said. Other markets that the chip may eventually be developed for and find use in include diagnostics and pharmacogenomics.

"The kinds of cost pressures that we're talking about are just as present in diagnostics or some of these personal genomics applications … where it's pretty clear that the market is going to be a lot more price sensitive than people initially thought," Worthington said.

While the chips are not yet at the penny-per-data point level, the company expects that will happen "sometime this year," he added. Worthington declined to disclose how far Fluidigm is from that goal, though he said that the FR 48 is below $.05 per data point.

Along with the launch of FR 48 within the next month, the company spokesman said, Fluidgm plans to design chips with different formats and reagents.

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