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Six-Month-Old Wafergen Brings First Product to Market; Other Assay Releases to Follow

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Just a half-year after its inception, Wafergen is well on its way to fulfilling its mission of combining in silico technology with in vitro biology.

The Fremont, Calif.-based biotech company, which was founded in early January by entrepreneurs Alnoor Shivji, Victor Joseph, and Amjad Huda, has already launched its first product, the SmartSlide system for conducting carefully regulated live-cell studies on a silicon chip-cum-microscope slide.

The SmartSlide is based on Wafergen’s flagship K2 technology, so-called because of Shivji’s love of the famous Himalayan Mountain, according to Joseph. K2 — the technology — consists of a silicon-based chip that has microtiter wells on it and rests upon a “computer board.” At the bottom of the wells are photodiodes for collecting data, as well as heating and cooling elements.

In terms of cell-based assays, one of the major benefits of the SmartSlide will be the ability to run drug-screening studies in parallel by adding different concentrations of drugs to each of the wells, according to Huda and Joseph.

Basically, the chip is interfaced with a computer so that data can be automatically registered, and temperature can be automatically adjusted. (For more on Wafergen’s founding and the K2 technology, see “high-throughput biology” column in GenomeWeb.com, Inside Bioassays’ sister publication.)

According to Huda, Wafergen saw several applications for K2, but quickly realized that one of the biggest industry needs was for a live-cell microscope slide that “brought the incubator to the microscope” so that live cells could be imaged and assayed for several consecutive days.

The company added other features, such as a means for controlling CO2 (for pH purposes) and nutrient supply. All of the parameters are controlled by an electronic controller box, which the computer oversees via specially designed SmartWare software. The result was the SmartSlide platform. One might think of it as a bionic microscope slide. (See image, this page)

The current SmartSlide has a 96-well-plate footprint that contains a 1- by 3-inch disposable slide. The slide features a dozen 100-microliter wells, each of which can be maintained at a set temperature, and can be individually supplied with appropriate media and CO2. In addition, the media can be recycled as frequently as necessary to maintain cell viability. According to Joseph, all this adds up to the ability to keep cells alive for several days.

Wafergen launched the SmartSlide in early June at the BIO conference in San Francisco, and even though the firm showed off only a prototype, it claims there was a palpable buzz about the product.

“The idea for this came [after we were founded] in January, and it came pretty fast,” Huda told Inside Bioassays last week. “We’ve gotten a few orders from companies already, and there are lots of inquiries, and we haven’t even advertised this properly yet.”

Cell-Based Assays

While 12 wells is not exactly high-throughput, Wafergen said it already has a prototype with 384 wells that “we are playing around with in our lab,” Joseph said.

He said the current system costs approximately $15,000, and includes the slide holder, electronics, and controller box. The actual disposable SmartSlides cost about $50 each. Although the officials declined to name specific customers, Huda said they included biotech companies in Germany, Japan, and Sweden.

In terms of competition, Huda said “we haven’t really seen one platform so far out there that can do everything that this can.”

One similar technology belongs to Biotrove, which sells a variety of assays (cell-based and others) based on its Living Chip technology — a nanoliter array chip consisting of micron-scale through-holes that are differentially coated on the surface and in the interior. But the real story of the Living Chip is its ability to function with a significantly smaller volume of valuable samples — not necessarily its live-cell capabilities.

In addition, Vitra Bioscience of Mountain View, Calif., markets its CellCard technology and related reagents and imaging instrumentation, which increases throughput by allowing more than one cell type to be assayed per well. But again, it doesn’t bring the concept of cell culture to the assay platform. In fact, “their platform isn’t really even close to ours, but a key person with Vitra is helping [with our technology],” Joseph said.

In the Works

Wafergen has two other products based on the K2 platform technology, both of which have yet to be released. The first, tentatively called the K2-Noor, is an imaging platform designed specifically for high-throughput, cell-based assays. Joseph and Huda declined to disclose any specific details about the platform, but said it will basically be used to monitor cells in high content and real time, and that it is intended to be used in conjunction with the SmartSlide technology. (The SmartSlide is currently designed to be imaged using a standard inverted microscope.)

Huda said that it would “probably be another six months before Noor is ready to hit the market.”

The second product is qPCR, a real-time or quantitative high-throughput PCR platform, and is likely the next product to be released, Huda said, although the company does not yet have a definite timetable for its release. The qPCR platform, although home-grown, will also incorporate lab-on-a-chip technology licensed recently from the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands.

—BB

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