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Abcam Gains Multiplexing, miRNA Assays via Firefly Buy; Sees Opportunities in Protein Analysis


NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Abcam's planned acquisition of Firefly BioWorks, announced last week, is a double blessing for the Cambridge, UK-based life science research tools company, according to its CEO Alan Hirzel.

Hirzel, who took over as chief executive last October, told GenomeWeb this week that Abcam had been looking to build out the kits and assays segment of its business by investing in multiplexing technologies as well as microRNA analysis assays, encouraged by customers who are more frequently complementing their protein analysis work with miRNA studies.

With the Firefly acquisition, Abcam was able to gain both capabilities.

"It was serendipity to find it in one company," noted Hirzel, who said that Abcam had been looking at Cambridge, Mass.-based Firefly for about a year. "We are getting multiplexing capability with the nice addition of the Firefly assays."

Abcam will pay £18.5 million ($28 million) in cash for Firefly. The deal is expected to close by the end of the month.

Founded in 1998, Abcam employs 800 people and maintains offices in the UK, US, China, and Japan. Roughly half of its sales are in the US, Hirzel noted. The firm is known for its line of 118,000 antibodies, kits, proteins and other reagents, and while its business has always been anchored in the protein analysis market, more of its clients are branching out into miRNA analysis.

"Our consumers are increasingly shifting or extending their focus from control of pathways by regulatory proteins to epigenetics and the role of miRNA and other non-coding RNAs," said Hirzel. "We see miRNA as a natural bridge between genomics and proteomics and we want to have a role in helping life scientists integrate these areas of research," he said.

According to Hirzel, there were over 7,000 miRNA-related publications in 2013, and many of these articles also cited Abcam protein quantitation products. "Our research consumers are telling us they are doing more with miRNA and we want to provide tools that will accelerate that research," he said.

Established in 2010, Firefly currently has 15 employees. The company has developed a multiplex biomarker detection platform that relies on hydrogel particles made using its optical liquid stamping technique, a process first developed by its founders at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to the firm, the particles are hydrophilic, inert, flexible, and porous, enabling target molecules to diffuse and bind in a three-dimensional scaffold, enhancing signal strength.

The company's Firefly microRNA assay employs a post-hybridization ligation-based approach to fluorescently label bound miRNA targets. First, miRNA targets are bound to target-specific probes attached to the hydrogel Firefly particles. A universal biotinylated adapter is then ligated to the captured targets and a fluorescent reporter binds to the universal adapter during this step. This reporter molecule is ultimately used for miRNA detection in a flow cytometer.

According to Firefly, select flow cytometers manufactured by Becton Dickinson, Millipore, and Thermo Fisher Scientific's Life Technologies brand can be used to detect its hydrogel particles. Currently, customers can detect 68 analytes per assay.

The ability to offer multiplex miRNA detection using flow cytometry was one of the aspects that most piqued Abcam's interest, Hirzel said. "Firefly provides us with a unique platform that is capable of working across a wide range of flow cytometers and doesn't tie our consumers to a particular instrument," he said. "This will reduce entry barriers to some of this technology," he added. "If you have a flow cytometer in your lab, you should be able to get this quickly."

Two other commercial miRNA analysis technologies are Exiqon's quantitative PCR assays and NanoString Technologies' digital molecular barcoding technology, which forms the basis for its nCounter Analysis System and miRNA Expression Assays.

"Quantitative PCR is a competitive technology, but can it do 68-plex?" asked Hirzel. And while NanoString's miRNA kits are available in assay reaction sizes of 12, 24, 48, and 96, Hirzel noted that potential NanoString customers still have to gain access to or acquire an nCounter system.

According to Hirzel, Firefly will continue to offer its miRNA analysis services to customers through an early access program out of its Cambridge office. Abcam in the meantime has begun integrating Firefly into its global business and scaling up commercial operations. The company said in a statement that after a period of modest investment it expects Firefly to "generate attractive returns in the longer term."

Hirzel also acknowledged plans to use Firefly's core technology for its protein analysis offerings, such as its SimpleStep ELISA assays and RabMAb rabbit monoclonal antibody products.

"We have an excellent collection of antibody pairs that we use in our SimpleStep ELISA products including exceptional pairs made with two of our proprietary RabMAb antibodies," said Hirzel. "To go with our own in-house RabMAb development, we recently signed an agreement with A*Star in Singapore to create even more RabMAb antibody pairs," said he added. "We believe these pairs in [the Firefly] platform have the potential to offer life scientists a high-quality and flexible multiplex immunoassay option."

Given the nascent stage of the integration, Hirzel declined to further speculate about the company's opportunities to combine the Firefly technology with its existing products. "There are some very interesting options, no doubt, and this is a more attractive business because of that," he said.