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Genospectra to Up Stake in RNAi Arena With New Product, Pending Agreement

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Genospectra, fresh from the launch of a reagent designed to improve the delivery of siRNAs, next week plans to announce a partnership with an "international" company for a related cell-based assay, CBA News has learned.

Last week Melanie Mahtani, Genospectra's vice president for business development, hinted to CBA News that the coming announcement may also have tie-ins with other live-cell assay reagents the company is currently developing — in particular, its photoactivated probes for real-time kinetic studies in live cells.

The recent product launch and pending agreement may realize Genospectra's recently stated ambition of diversifying its product offerings by moving into the area of live-cell assays.

The latest moves also make it clear that Genospectra is joining the ranks of a wide swath of biotechnology companies — from reagent providers to high-content screening firms to software companies — that have started to offer products or form collaborations combining RNAi and cell-based assays. Recent examples of this include GE Healthcare and Fisher subsidiary Dharmacon; Definiens and Cenix; Cyntellect; and BioImage and RNAx.

Last year, Genospectra itself signed a deal with RNAi firm Dharmacon to bundle QuantiGene with Dharmacon's RNAi reagents into a single product offering (see CBA News, 8/3/2004) — although Mahtani noted that the new product is unrelated to this agreement.

Mahtani declined to disclose the identity of the company with which it has a pending agreement, primarily because she had yet to receive confirmation of sign-off by the partner as of press time. However, she said that Genospectra expected to make an announcement in the coming week.

"It's a collaboration to develop a series of products," Mahtani said. "They're cell biology reagents, and it's an important new set of technologies."

Currently, Genospectra does not offer products for live-cell assays. Its flagship product, QuantiGene, was licensed exclusively last year from Bayer Diagnostics and rebundled as a product that allows basic researchers to quantify the absolute amount of mRNA in fresh cell lysate without the need for amplification, reverse transcription, or any other preparation methods.

It is unclear how successful sales of QuantiGene have been, as Genospectra doesn't disclose specific product sales figures or the identities of specific customers. However, Mahtani said last week that Amgen, Alnylam, Dharmacon, and Eli Lilly have all either published papers or given public presentations about QuantiGene.

Mahtani has also in the past told CBA News that about half of the company's customers are in the RNAi field, and use QuantiGene to measure the level of knockdown achieved by siRNA reagents. Most of Quantigene's other customers are in secondary drug screening, particularly predictive toxicology, Mahtani said.

Two weeks ago, Genospectra launched its second product, Express-si, a reagent that it believes will improve the delivery of siRNAs into difficult-to-transfect cell types, such as primary cells.

A method for absolute measure of RNAi in cells is crucial to researchers using RNAi technology to knock down specific targets in cellular assays, particularly because scientists must be able to prove that phenotypic outcomes are a direct result of efficient gene knockdown.

Express-si is based on technology that Genospectra licensed exclusively from France's Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique. The technology, called MPG, was developed by CNRS researcher Frederic Heitz, and is a peptide-based gene-delivery system derived from an HIV protein and applicable to the delivery of a wide variety of molecules to cells.

Mahtani said that Genospectra would likely try to bundle the new delivery reagent with QuantiGene for customers doing RNAi knockdown studies. This could include basic functional genomics researchers and pharmaceutical scientists who are conducting target validation studies.

"Because it is not a lipid-based reagent like a lipofection reagent, it doesn't result in the accumulation of the siRNA cargo in the endosome," Mahtani explained. "So the nice thing about that is that your cargo doesn't get targeted for destruction, and it doesn't end up getting stuck in endosomes where it can't really act.

"In addition, it's not very toxic to the cell," she added, "It's looking like we can get it into primary cells and into difficult-to-transfect cells, and it has a pretty novel mechanism of action … in which the actual RNA particles would interact with the cell's nuclear import machinery."

Furthermore, Genospectra has been developing photo-activated probes for controllable delivery of reagents into cells. In particular, in collaboration with the Cleveland Clinic, the company has developed "controllable siRNA," or csiRNA, Mahtani said. These siRNAs can be activated by light at a desired time in living cells, thus allowing researchers to control exactly when gene knockdown occurs.

Mahtani hinted the pending collaboration would tie into this area.

"We still have strong efforts in live-cell biosensor assays, but we thought that delivery was a very important component to address, to be able to bring molecules into cells," Mahtani said. "Those efforts are still ongoing, and I think that we can [discuss] that more next week, and the relevance of that to the [new] agreement."

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

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