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Applied Biosystems Ambion Purchase Could Lead to an Increased Cell-Based Assay Play


Applied Biosystems' decision to acquire Ambion's research products division, disclosed last week, represents ABI's first foray into the burgeoning RNAi consumables arena. The move could also be a harbinger of a deeper commitment to high-throughput and high-content cellular analysis, according to an ABI official.

"We didn't offer to buy Ambion for our cell biology business — it's really for our molecular biology business — but the downstream synergistic potential is obvious," Peter Danske, vice president and general manager of molecular biology consumables for ABI, told CBA News this week.

The deal serves to further round out ABI's reagent and consumables portfolio, and provides an "upstream" reagent offering to complement its more prominent "downstream" platforms for gene-expression analysis, PCR, and even mass spectrometry, according to company officials.

Before announcing its plan to buy Ambion's reagents business for approximately $273 million in cash (see sidebar), ABI was not selling any RNAi consumables, a conspicuous hole in its otherwise multivariate consumables business. An ABI spokesperson this week told BioCommerce Week, a CBA News sister publication, that although ABI doesn't currently sell RNAi products, it does "sell assays and platforms which are used to evaluate the downstream effects of RNAi on gene expression and cellular function."

ABI does not offer a true high-content imaging platform; however, it does sell the 8200 Cellular Detection Platform, a laser-based end-point cellular analysis system that the company is nurturing in its cellular analysis incubator group.

RNAi consumables have significant overlap with a number of drug-discovery tools, in particular microarray-enabled gene-expression analysis. The gene-silencing technology is even being explored as a potential therapeutic for a number of diseases.

Recently, however, the use of RNAi for targeted gene knockdown has been shown to overlap strongly with high-throughput and high-content cellular analysis, particularly image-based analysis, for large-scale functional genomics studies and drug discovery.

ABI does not offer a true high-content imaging platform; however, it does sell the 8200 Cellular Detection Platform, a laser-based end-point cellular analysis system that the company is nurturing in its cellular analysis incubator group (see CBA News, 10/3/2005).

Last year, Anthony Chiulli, the 8200 product manager for ABI, said that the most comparable platforms on the market are the GE Healthcare IN Cell 1000, TTP Labtech's Acumen Explorer, and Cellomics' KineticScan and ArrayScan instruments. Each of those instrument platforms has figured prominently in RNAi-based functional genomics research, which points to a possible link between Ambion's RNAi consumables and the 8200.

However, last week Chiulli told CBA News that the company doesn't currently use RNAi consumables in conjunction with the 8200, but that the possibility exists in the future considering the Ambion purchase.

Rounding Out Its Consumables

Danske, ABI's molecular biology consumables vice president, told CBA News that an estimated 38 percent of the company's revenues last year were from consumables, representing nearly $700 million in sales.

"We have a strong portfolio around PCR and real-time PCR, which includes everything from the accessories to run thermal cyclers; to enzymes and enzyme mixes to enable the PCR process; and assays for targeting specific genes, either for gene expression or genotyping analysis," Danske said. "We also have various kits directed at specific applications, like human identity kits for forensic testing, all the way to our mass spec platforms, for quantitative analysis of proteins. Finally, on our sequencing platforms, we have both the sequencing chemistries themselves, and the separation media that basically enables the capillary electrophoresis."

Danske also said that Ambion's RNAi product line "is sitting upstream of a number of our downstream platforms, on the gene expression side for RNA analysis, and also for cellular analysis and even mass spec analysis."

Furthermore, the acquisition is also part of a broader strategy by ABI to further separate its consumables offerings from its instrumentation platforms, according to Danske.

"We are looking less at just what runs on the platforms, and looking more at customer applications, what the workflow is that the customers [need], and how we can best deliver that to them as a solution," he said.

"When you look at it that way, you start to look more upstream," he added. "And if you talk about RNAi, you look at a customer who is doing gene expression, and you talk to certain customers who are using RNAi to affect certain genes to see the resultant gene expression pathways, so you start working your way back upstream. The same is true really across our portfolio."

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

Details of the Deal

Applied Biosystems' planned acquisition of Ambion's research division is worth approximately $273 million in cash, according to the company. The transaction, which is subject to regulatory and other customary closing conditions, is expected to close in the first calendar quarter of this year.

According to ABI, the purchase will provide it entry into a market that it estimates at $500 million and growing at an annual rate of more than 10 percent. Ambion expects to report more than $52 million in revenue for the research products division in 2005, which would be a 22-percent improvement over 2004 receipts. In total, the research products division accounts for about 90 percent of the company's revenue, according to Ambion officials.

Ambion's research division has approximately 300 employees. An ABI spokesperson said last week that although plans about staffing haven't been finalized, ABI intends to keep most of Ambion's employees.

Ambion's research and development, manufacturing, and other operations will continue to be based in Austin, Texas, and report to ABI's molecular biology division as a wholly owned subsidiary of Applera. Ambion's other assets, primarily its diagnostics business, will be sold to Asuragen, a newly formed affiliate of Ambion.

— BB

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