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Swedish Cell Chip Firm Attana Introduces Contract Research Services to Woo Pharma, Cell Biologists

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STOCKHOLM – When Attana, an 11-year-old Swedish biosensor company, introduced its Cell 200 system two years ago, it envisioned a future where its revenues would be driven by instrument placements and consumables sales.

However, the reaction of Attana's pharmaceutical company clients to the Cell 200, which can be used to measure kinetic molecular reactions in cells, presented the company with an unexpected challenge, Thomas Ljungberg, the company's international sales manager, told BioArray News during an interview here this week.

"The people who were working with purified material had a hard time working with cells," Ljungberg said. "And the cell biologists didn't understand how to use the instrument."

While market acceptance has taken longer than anticipated, the company firm has seen an increase in adoption since it decided to introduce contract research services. While the service officially launched in September, Ljungberg said that Attana has been running cell studies "from sample to result" for pharma clients for several months. And while the new service is "still in its early stages," he felt comfortable with calling it a success.

"A lot of people are interested in obtaining this information," Ljungberg said. "We can see that these companies continue to work with us and we know that it works," Ljungberg said. "We are very confident that the information we can deliver with this system is something nobody else can provide."

Attana's foundational technology is called quartz crystal microbalance. It uses chips that contain quartz surfaces to measure changes in mass on a molecular level. According to the firm, an applied AC-potential causes the quartz crystal to vibrate at its resonance frequency. As analytes flow over the crystal and bind to ligands attached to the surface, the vibration frequency changes. This difference in frequency is proportional to the change in mass and is used to characterize label-free molecular interactions in real time, the firm claims.

"It is actually what everybody is looking for," said Ljungberg. "How do our targets behave when they are flowing over a cell surface?"

Since the assay does not require sample purification or labeling, Attana stresses that its chips characterize molecular interactions "exactly as they occur in the human body." The company offers a menu of different surface chemistries for different kinds of reactions. Its LBL Carboxyl sensor chip, for example, offers low non-specific binding, while its COP-1 sensor enables the growth of mammalian cells directly at the sensor chip surface, and its polystyrene sensor is designed to allow ex situ immobilization.

On its website, Attana bills the Cell 200 instrument as a "one-stop shop" that combines biochemical and cell-based assays. The automated system also includes parallel channels that enable users to run one sample as a control. Using the Cell 200, users can process up to 192 samples in parallel for applications such as off-rate screening, kinetic and affinity evaluation, and epitope mapping, according to the firm. While the company offers other systems and assays, Ljungberg said that the Cell 200 is "definitely the focus today." He said that the system currently has a list price of about $200,000. But it's the CRO services that have provided Attana with a new revenue stream.

Attana's main competitor is Biacore. Based in nearby Uppsala, Sweden, and acquired by GE in 2006, Biacore also claims it can monitor interactions in cells in real time using its surface plasmon resonance imaging technology. In order to compete with Biacore, Ljungberg said that Attana will have to take part in more studies that feature its technology. Since most of its customers are pharmaceutical clients that do not wish to publish their results, much work done on Attana's platform goes unnoticed, but the recent introduction of contract research services has allowed the firm to generate interest in its offerings.

"Due to working with pharma, we don't have thousands of publications," said Ljungberg. "One way to get people talking about the technology is via the contract research services."

Going direct

Attana announced separately last month that it would now sell and market its products directly in Europe and North America.

According to previous statements, since 2011, the firm had relied on Tecan, the Swiss life science tools provider, as a distributor, but Ljungberg said that the relationship ceased as the firm initiated its contract research services. As of Sept. 1, Attana has handled all sales of its systems and services in Europe and North America, although it has continued to rely on distributors to reach customers in other regions. He did not name the distributors.

This switch to a direct sales model has made Attana more reliant on its contract research services to build its customer base, Ljungberg said, as it is a way to introduce its technology to more customers. He stressed that Attana is optimistic about its future prospects.

"In all the meetings we've been in, people say that, in a few years, there will be more measurements on cells than on purified material," he said.

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