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BD's Acquisition of Cellular Research Part of Broader Genomics Strategy

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This article has been updated to correct the name of BD's new genomics division.

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Becton Dickinson's recent acquisition of single-cell genomics startup Cellular Research is a building block of a broader genomics strategy the company is pursuing, GenomeWeb has learned.

As part of the strategy, BD plans to launch a new flow cytometry cell sorter for the genomics market within the next six months, release an automated next-gen sequencing library prep system developed by GenCell early next year, and market Cellular Research's Precise assays for high-throughput single-cell RNA-seq analysis to existing cell sorting customers.

Earlier this week, BD announced that it acquired Cellular Research, a 2011 startup founded by Stanford University and biotech industry researchers, for an undisclosed amount. The company, which sells products for multiplexed gene expression analysis in single cells and other small samples based on its patented molecular indexing technology, will become part of BD's Life Sciences segment.

All of Cellular Research's more than 30 employees have joined BD, and the company is staying at its site in Menlo Park, California, where it moved just a few weeks ago and which will also house BD's genomics division, Martin Pieprzyk, Cellular Research's director of strategic marketing, told GenomeWeb.

Earlier this year, the two companies announced a co-marketing agreement for BD's FACS cell sorting instruments and Cellular Research's Precise assays to prepare 96 or 384 single cells for RNA-seq.

In addition, researchers from both firms collaborated on marrying the two technologies and presented a poster with early results at the Advances in Genome Biology and Technology conference in February. For that project, they used a BD FACSJazz cell sorter to collect regulatory T-cell subpopulations from a blood sample into 96-well Precise plates, followed by molecular indexing and RNA-seq of about 100 genes using an Illumina sequencer.

"The collaboration was very successful," Linda Tharby, president of BD Life Sciences, told GenomeWeb, and demonstrated the value of combining cell sorting, where cells with specific phenotypes are collected, with molecular indexing and next-gen sequencing to analyze their gene expression. "The marriage of the phenotype and the genotype information is incredibly important," she said, and the approach promises to be more cost effective and less plagued by amplification bias than other approaches to single-cell expression analysis.

But for BD, Cellular Research is only one piece of a "much broader" genomics division that the Life Sciences segment has started to assemble. "We are building a much larger genomics presence," Tharby said. "It's a key area of investment and growth for the company."

"We started to look at the whole next-generation sequencing space and what BD could uniquely provide and build a long-term competitive position in," she explained. As a result, the company decided to focus on sample collection, where it already has a strong position through its PAXgene product line, a joint venture between BD and Qiagen, as well as on sample preparation all the way up to sequencing-ready libraries.

To build the genomics business, BD recently hired Stephen Gunstream, the former chief commercial officer of Integrated DNA Technologies, as vice president of Global Genomics. BD is also naming Cellular Research's Menlo Park site the BD Genomics Center of Excellence and will move some of its genomics specialists there.

As of today, BD has four technologies that fit into the genomics space, Tharby said: the PAXgene products around blood and tissue collection and nucleic acid stabilization that are sold by PreAnalytiX; BD's FACS equipment for cell sorting; Cellular Research's molecular indexing technology for single-cell genomic analysis; and the Composite Liquid Cell microdroplet reaction technology that BD obtained when it acquired Irish startup GenCell Biosystems a year ago.

BD plans to make its FACS cell sorters easier to use and more cost effective and plans to launch a new instrument that will be aimed specifically at the genomics market within the next six months, Tharby said.

GenCell, which maintains its original R&D site in Limerick, already has a number of early access customers for its automated NGS library preparation CLiC platform, and BD plans to officially launch that instrument, which promises high throughput, low cost, and user-friendliness, at the AGBT conference in early 2016, she said.

BD will continue to sell Cellular Research's Precise assays and its Pixel instrument for direct mRNA quantification from single cells. "We're continuing to sell and support the products to all our existing customers. All our programs are staying in place," Pieprzyk said.

Earlier this year, Cellular Research said that it plans to commercialize a platform for high-throughput single-cell RNA-seq sample prep, called the Resolve system, in 2016.

Tharby declined to comment on commercialization plans for the system, but Pieprzyk told GenomeWeb that the company is "still fully committed to the timeframe."

"The big change now is we will have a very large commercial infrastructure that will be able to sell it directly, and we'll also have significantly more technical backing and financial backing to bring the product to market," he said. "If anything, it looks much more promising and stronger now in terms of development timelines and actual commercial release."

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