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Fisher Jumps Into Molecular Dx with Athena Buy, Nanogen Stake; Cardio Assays First, PGx to Follow


Fisher Scientific is moving to take a place among molecular diagnostics and pharmacogenomics firms.

The company said last week that it plans to acquire Athena Diagnostics for $283 million in cash and spend $15 million for a 9-percent stake in Nanogen in order to develop molecular and point-of-care diagnostics from the companies' products.

Athena owns biomarkers largely in neurology — specifically amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, epilepsy, and Alzheimer's disease. The company has also been developing capabilities in nephrology and endocrinology, Fisher spokesperson Gia Oei told Pharmacogenomics Reporter this week.

Fisher's plan is to assemble Athena's biomarker intellectual property into diagnostics using Nanogen's platforms, Oei said. But Fisher, which is known as a big laboratory supply house and as a provider of mostly traditional diagnostics, such as in hematology and microbiology, has been cagey about the specific areas its molecular diagnostics will address, saying in a statement that it aims to provide "personalized, gene-based tests and sophisticated tools and services for molecular biology."

The acquisition allows Fisher "to provide the actual tests and the outsource services that are critical as healthcare moves increasingly towards personalized medicine," Oei said.

Nanogen "has the capacity to make [Athena's IP] into molecular diagnostics, [as well as] point-of-care products that are immunoassay products, to the extent that we look at those."

The company is providing few details about its pharmacogenomics plans, although it intends to develop new tests for the clinical trials testing market, "and in particular, Athena's genetic tests can help pharmaceutical companies better identify which patients may respond more effectively to specific drugs" during trials, she added.

Fisher also said in the statement that the acquisition and Nanogen partnership will help position it to "capitalize on advances in gene-based therapies that drive demand for genetic testing." Fisher has no timeline for the emergence of diagnostics from the acquisitions, Oei said.

Athena's holdings include both molecular and antibody biomarkers, and Nanogen "has the capacity to make those into molecular diagnostics, [as well as] point-of-care products that are immunoassay products, to the extent that we look at those," Nanogen CEO Howard Birndorff said last week.

In pharmacogenomics, Nanogen invested about $1.5 million for a 20-percent share of Finland-based genomic services and tools company Jurilab in late July. "We are working with them specifically on a type 2 diabetes program, and we have access to other intellectual property," said Birndorff.

The transaction gave Nanogen access to Jurilab's DrugMet drug-metabolizing enzyme microarray, which may be cleared by the FDA by the end of the month, Kari Paukkeri, the company's CEO, told Pharmacogenomics Reporter in July.

Jurilab also has about 20 years' worth of clinical data on an East Finland founder population of about 3,000 people, and it has matched this information with genotypes related largely to cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. "We think [Jurilab's database] can potentially support about 30 disease states," Robert Saltmarsh, Nanogen's CFO, said in July.

Nanogen's platforms that are most well-suited to molecular diagnostics include its real-time PCR products and the NanoChip 400, which Birndorff said the company plans to submit for clearance with the US Food and Drug Administration before the end of the year. "We have a number of pathways to diagnostics — some are molecular, some are not," Birndorff said.

The company has a point-of-care NT-proBNP heart-failure diagnostic.that is currently undergoing FDA review, and the company "will be submitting other point-of-care products to the FDA over time," said Birndorff. Nanogen also sells rapid cardiac immunoassays recently acquired with Spectral Genomics' cardiac diagnostic test business.

For Fisher, one goal of the acquisition is to create point-of-care tests using the strengths of the three companies, said Oei.

As an example of confluence of interest between Nanogen and Athena, Birndorff mentioned Athena's IP in Connection 26, a genetic marker for hereditary deafness. "They have the exclusive rights for that product in the US, and we have the exclusive rights outside of the US," he said.

In the wake of the acquisitions, Fisher counts Specialty Laboratories, Genzyme, and LabCorp's subsidiary Esoterix as its new competitors in genetic disease testing, "but none of them have a comprehensive portfolio for neurology, like Athena does," Oei said.

Common genetic diagnostics Athena offers include tests related to Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy, diabetes, kidney disorders, Parkinson's disease, and neuromuscular conditions, according to a company customer service representative. Athena doesn't yet offer a pharmacogenetic test, but "the future is there for diagnostics," the representative said. A list of Athena's tests and their associated patents can be found here.

The scientific products and services giant paid Athena's owner, Behrman Capital, approximately $283 million in cash for that company. The transaction with Athena, which reported 2005 net revenues of $55 million and employs about 200 people, should close early in the second quarter, the companies said.

Terms of the Nanogen equity investment call for Fisher to buy approximately 5.7 million shares of Nanogen common stock at $2.65 per share, Nanogen said in a separate statement last week. Nanogen shares closed at $2.52 on the Nasdaq exchange the day before the investment was announced, meaning that Fisher paid a 5-percent premium for its stake.

At 9 percent, Fisher's stake in Nanogen will by far be the largest of any single investor, according to Yahoo! Finance data, and represents nearly the same ownership as the top three institutional investors that own shares in Nanogen. Legg Mason, Dimensional Fund Advisors, and Barclays Bank together own around 10 percent of Nanogen's stock.

— Chris Womack ([email protected])

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