Scienion, a decade-old German liquid-handling and microarray firm, is developing a next-generation spotting technology it hopes will give it an advantage over rival arrayer providers.
The company is preparing to roll out a new print cartridge, which is already available to early-access customers, at a time when it is broadening the applications it supports in order to woo diagnostic clients.
CEO Holger Eickhoff said that Scienion has developed a new printing cartridge called the piezo dispense pen, or PDP — an integrated storage device that allows users to print bioanalytes supplied by a cartridge that can be partially used, stored, and used again. The PDP system will also enable customers to replace cartridges with others that contain different analytes.
"You can store and print your bioanalytes like you print in a normal printer," Eickhoff told BioArray News. "You install the cartridge, print, and when you are done, you can close it and put it back in your refrigerator," he said. "There is no cross contamination and close to zero dead volume, which, from a cost for goods perspective, is attractive."
For Scienion's suite of sciFlexarrayers, biomolecules have to date been supplied to the instruments' print head via glass capillaries that must be rinsed, washed, and cleaned, Eickhoff said. Using the new cartridge format, Scienion's clients will be able to dispense material, release the cartridge, and then replace it with a new one. Once commercialized, the print cartridges will either be distinguishable from one another via an identification tag or barcode, he said.
Eickhoff said that some of the firm's customers already have access to the next-gen technology, though he did not disclose the identities of these early-access customers. The company plans a general product launch later this year, with the aim of selling the cartridges as a consumable for use with its arrayers. Based on feedback from initial adopters, Eickhoff said an upgraded version of the cartridge system with "tiny modifications" could become available by the end of 2011.
Founded in 2000 in Berlin as a spin-off of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, privately held Scienion tried to compete with firms like Affymetrix and Agilent Technologies as an array vendor but later made a strategic decision to become a hardware supplier. The firm has launched six distinct sciFlexarrayer instruments to date: the entry-level model DW, which can produce four arrays in one run; the S3 for R&D applications; the S5 and S11 for medium-throughput array manufacturing; the S100, which can produce over 1,000 arrays per run for high-throughput manufacturing; and the compact SX system, which includes components from all of Scienion's arrayers in one enclosure.
Customers that own any one of Scienion's instruments will be able to switch to the new PDP print cartridges once they become available without an upgrade, Eickhoff said. He added that the firm is "set" regarding its suite of instruments and does not plan any new arrayers at the moment.
"We have a philosophy that supports customers from very early R&D through full production," said Eickhoff. "You can use the same dispensing technology in the biggest machine that you use to do your basic R&D with a smaller one," he said. "If you want to scale up, if you want to repeat experiments, you can buy a slightly larger machine."
'The Shovels, Not the Gold'
Scienion currently competes in a market that includes rivals like Roslin, UK-based Arrayjet, and Billerica, Mass.-based Aushon Biosystems. The 30-employee-strong company has positioned itself as the go-to company for dispensing low volumes of liquid. "We don't care very much about the type of analyte or surface that is used; we do DNA, [peptide nucleic acid], [locked nucleic acid], peptides, antibodies, proteins, glycans, carbohydrates, every biomarker you can imagine is used with our technology and fixed to all kinds of substrates," said Eickhoff of the firm's technology.
Last month, Scienion disclosed that it had been working with Peter Seeberger of the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces to produce carbohydrate arrays for glycobiology studies, an area that the firm said is of interest in drug discovery, especially for the development of carbohydrate-based vaccines. Specifically, Seeberger has been using chips manufactured in the sciFlexarrayer to study the role of complex oligosaccharides involved in biological processes of medical relevance, including the interactions of oligosaccharides with proteins that control cell growth, cell differentiation, cell-cell-interactions, bacterial attachment to target cells and signaling events involving the extracellular matrix.
Seeberger said in a statement that his lab focuses on the "automated synthesis of different kinds of complex oligosaccharides and carbohydrate microarrays play an important role in various parts of our research activities — as versatile screening platforms and potential future diagnostic tools."
Eickhoff said that Scienion's ability to dispense low amounts of liquid lends itself to the study of carbohydrates as synthesized sugar yields can be very low. "Our technology uses only small amounts, so from a given volume, we can create a lot of arrays that are then used in different applications," he said.
"With DNA, you have four bases, with sugars you have several hundred monomers, so the amount of sugars synthesized is an enormously high variety," Eickhoff added. "Chips, where you can put a lot of markers in parallel on a surface, tend to be useful."
Using its PDP cartridge technology, Eickhoff said that Scienion can put nanoliters of synthesized sugars into a cartridge, dispense picoliters of material, and put the cartridge back on the shelf to be used at a later date. The firm does not isolate or synthesize sugars for its customers, though. "We are an enabling company," Eickhoff said. "As an analogy to the gold rush, we sell the shovels, not the gold."
'The Key Customer Segment'
For Scienion, the production of carbohydrate arrays is viewed as a gateway to greater adoption by labs developing tests. In a paper published online earlier this year, for instance, researchers from the University of Freiburg described a procedure to create polysaccharide microarrays using Scienion's arrayer that can be used to analyze antibodies using an integrated, complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor-based electric signal readout process.
The researchers used chips that consisted of an array of silicon photodiodes where different types of polysaccharides from the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae were printed on the silicon dioxide chip surface. The polysaccharide microarrays were then used to measure IgG antibody concentrations in human blood sera using either chemiluminescence or fluorescence-based detection. The authors found the dynamic measurement range of the sensor reached more than three decades of concentration and covered the physiologically relevant range for the analysis of antibodies against a large panel of pneumococcal polysaccharides.
"We have customers developing pharmaceutically active carbohydrates and there are people taking the first steps into diagnostics with carbohydrate arrays," said Eickhoff. "I think that diagnostics is the key customer segment that we are dealing with today," he said. "When people want to develop certain tests to show efficacy of new drugs on certain populations, they will need to test for SNPs or specific proteins," he said. "Diagnostic companies are our key market."
Eickhoff said that Scienion's arrayers are already being used to produce laboratory-developed tests in point-of-care settings. "We can see very clearly that the market in Asia is growing much quicker than the rest of the world, particularly in China and India" he said. He also said some US customers are using the firm's technology to make laboratory-developed tests, though he declined to name customers.
According to Eickhoff, reimbursement schemes for multi-parameter diagnostics may ultimately determine to what extent technologies like Scienion's are used in the clinical setting. "This topic has nothing to do with the technology, it has to do with how people can claim money back from insurers," he said. "The resolution of this issue will have a dramatic effect on the overall size of the market we address."