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Startup Persomics Aims to Launch Mini RNAi Screening Tech by Year-End

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NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Having recently kicked off a beta testing program for its miniaturized RNAi screening technology, startup Persomics is aiming for a full commercial launch of its first products before the end of the year.

In the meantime, the company is working to strike deals with the various life science firms that will provide the siRNA content for the plates that are the foundation of its technology, as well as providers of high-content imaging platforms interested in optimizing their systems for use with the plates, Persomics COO Mike Sjaastad told GenomeWeb this week.

Persomics's core technology was initially developed by CEO Neil Emans while at Institut Pasteur Korea and later South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and involves spotting thousands of sub-millimeter-sized siRNAs onto a slide, which is then embedded in a standard-sized plate.

The technology is essentially a simplified version of what is currently done in multi-well plates, Sjaastad explained. "You simply add (adherent) cells to the plate, and they settle down on top of the spots," each of which silences a specific gene.

After 48 hours, cells are stained and "you proceed with your normal high-content screening assay," he said. The approach "has miniaturized the whole process of screening a large number of genes."

Because the plates, dubbed ImagineArrays, are ready for use off the shelf, there is no need for the infrastructure to manage and plate out siRNA libraries, Sjaastad said, which offers a significant cost advantage over conventional siRNA screening approaches.

"We think screening facilities are going to adopt [ImagineArrays] for cost-cutting … but that also opens the market to the individual bench lab-level where [researchers] can buy a plate, screen a kinome or some other library, and take it down to their core facility to read it on an imager," he said. This is "something an individual academic lab has never been able to do without writing a grant and collaborating with a screening facility."

According to Sjaastad, individual plates are expected to cost between $300 and $1,500 apiece, depending on the number of spots and the siRNA library involved. He noted that ImagineArrays can currently hold about 3,000 spots, and that Emans has previously spotted the entire human genome over seven plates.

Aside from the practical advantages of lower costs and reduced infrastructure requirements, Sjaastad also sees a scientific benefit in ImagineArrays as they will help enable investigators to conduct additional experimentation across different libraries in order to validate their findings.

He noted that the lion's share of the research and development around ImagineArrays has already been conducted in Emans's lab, with remaining optimization underway with various beta testers.

The bulk of the work leading up to commercialization now, Sjaastad added, is around striking deals with different companies to put their siRNA libraries on the arrays.

Persomics is not disclosing which library providers it expects to sign on for the planned fourth-quarter commercial rollout of the ImagineArrays. Sjaastad stressed, however, that the firm aims to partner with as many different providers as possible.

"We are working with any interested content providers," he said. "There are no exclusive deals."

Sjaastad said that during initial discussions with companies over access to their siRNA libraries, he routinely ran into concerns that Persomics's technology would cannibalize their existing offerings.

"Then they realize … [that] it could actually cause a resurgence and broadening of the market for them" by creating a demand for RNAi screening among researchers who would otherwise not have access to the technology, he said. At this point, "we're not having a hard time finding content providers that are interested."

Sjaastad said that Persomics is also getting the attention of high-content imaging firms.

Although the ImagineArrays can work with existing imaging systems with only minor modifications to train them to read arrays of spots instead of arrays of wells, these companies may be interested in developing specific software applications for ImagineArrays.

"It might be that the companies want to work more closely and develop some software advantages," he said. "We're open to any level of collaboration with high-content imaging [firms or] anyone providing automated microscopy."

In addition to plates spotted with commercially available siRNA libraries, Persomics is also planning to offer customized plates, primarily for groups and companies running screens with confidential, high-end libraries, Sjaastad said. "We can even consider joint discovery projects," where Persomics handles the screening and provides the results back to its partner.

Longer term, he sees opportunities in personalized medicine.

"We're introducing a platform upon which a small number of cells can screen a large number of genes," he said. "That opens up the potential to use primary cells or patient-derived cells someday."

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