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As Aurora Reestablishes Itself in HTS, It Reconnects with Informatics Friend

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Aurora is back in the high-throughput screening sector.

The company apparently faded from the field after it was acquired by Vertex Pharmaceuticals in July 2001. But all the while, it has been quietly working with several big pharma companies and many employees at drug-discovery information management provider Xystus.

The consistent dealings with big pharma and Xystus, along with its eventual spin-out from Vertex, have now led to Aurora’s re-emergence.

Both Aurora and Xystus have experienced a whirlwind ride over the past few years, which culminated in the April 16 announcement that the companies partnered to “co-market and deliver their products and services as complete research systems,” according to an official statement. Together, the companies will provide both screening platforms and the informatics capabilities to manage large-scale screening experiments.

Aurora’s original incarnation was Aurora Biosciences, which for years was one of the industry leaders for providing high-throughput assay development and screening instruments to big pharma.

But when Vertex acquired Aurora Biosciences, it signaled that it intended to integrate Aurora’s assay development expertise with its own drug development program. In addition, Aurora became a wholly owned subsidiary of Vertex and continued to offer its products and services to several big pharma companies.

In December 2002, Aurora Biosciences became Aurora Instruments, to better reflect the company’s intention to commercialize high-throughput screening instrumentation developed by its predecessor.

Finally, in December of last year, San Francisco-based investment firm Telegraph Hill Partners, along with several employees of Aurora Instruments, purchased nearly all the company’s assets from Vertex. It was renamed Aurora Discovery, and in effect, again became an independent instrumentation and assay development company.

Meanwhile in January 2002, several people who had been doing information systems work for Aurora, as well as for other biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, formed Xystus.

In fact, Samuel Beckey, Xystus’ founder and CEO, served for several years as Aurora Biosciences’ vice president of business development for that company’s systems branch. Beckey was able to leverage that experience to sign some of Aurora’s big pharma customers as users of Xystus’ information management platform.

“When we went to the customers for the systems at Aurora and said ‘What do you want next?’ they said ‘Really, it’s the enterprise stuff we want to concentrate on,’” Beckey said. “So it’s kind of halfway in between. We’re still doing support and maintenance and upgrades … but the thing that we really perceive as the need in the industry is big systems to organize big research.”

What Xystus became is a company that offers mostly software and support to perform ‘foundation informatics,’ which Beckey described as “not necessarily algorithms so much as the plumbing: The movement of data from here to there, the organization of data, collecting information in increasingly large databases … and organizing it in a way that makes sense.”

He also added that although the template was based on Aurora’s business, Aurora only performs high-throughput screening, while Xystus focuses on helping organize any type of drug discovery program.

No Surprises

So there was likely little surprise when Xystus and Aurora joined forces this month, as many of Aurora’s big pharma customers had been exposed to Xystus’ informatics solutions before the company even existed, and became Xystus customers after the company was officially founded.

“There’s a similar customer base,” said Chris Biagioli, the senior manager of product marketing at Aurora. “The [April 16] agreement is largely on the sales and marketing side. It allows one group to leverage the other’s sales force for better market penetration.”

“Most of our customers had been asking if it was going to happen,” Beckey said. “In terms of high-throughput screening, [Aurora] can do a lot, but not everything, and we can do a lot but not everything.”

What Aurora mostly does now is provide instrumentation that allows its pharmaceutical customers to miniaturize high-throughput drug screening assays, including cell-based ones. And its business approach, Biagioli explained, is definitely different than the company formerly known as Aurora Biosciences.

“There was a focus several years back for companies to offer big systems for high-throughput screening in which other equipment could not be integrated,” he said. “What Aurora is doing now is offering instrumentation that is compatible with other companies’ products.”

Aurora still offers a “big” system, dubbed the Discovery Island platform, which is an amalgamation of all of Aurora’s high-throughput screening products. But Biagioli said that there are several individual components that are bigger sellers. These include the Flying Reagent Dispenser microfluidic reagent and cell dispenser and the Multi-tip Piezo Dispenser for transferring compounds from small-scale well-plates to high-density well plates for assay miniaturization.

Other big sellers include Aurora’s ChemLib microplates, which Xystus’ Beckey believes distinguish Aurora from the competition. The microplates have ultra-low autofluorescence, and are “suitable for cell-based assays, particularly low-fluorescence applications,” said Biagioli. In addition, the plates come with either 1,536 or 3,456 wells, the latter being the highest density microwell plates on the market.

“They determined to use 3,456 based on statistical analysis of the number of cells you can fit in a well,” Beckey said. “You can’t get much smaller than that and still be statistically representative of the population.”

It’s too early to tell if the new approach will pay off, but on April 9 the company announced the delivery of a discovery system to a major (unnamed) pharmaceutical customer. Specific components cited by the company included its low-volume reagent dispensers, including the Flying Reagent Dispenser, its topology-compensating plate reader, and high-density 1,536- and 3,456-well plates.

As for future collaborations, both representatives were clear that each company will still be pursuing its own endeavors, despite their current overlapping customer base.

“We won’t necessarily pursue new customers together,” Biagioli said. “But when our customers are looking for software or informatics solutions, we’ll definitely recommend Xystus as an option.”

“There are plenty of customers that they service and we don’t,” said Beckey. When asked if this might be a first step in Aurora and Xystus becoming a single entity in the future, Beckey told Inside Bioassays that you never know, but that it is unlikely. “Neither of us is rich enough to buy the other one out,” he joked.

— BB

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