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Affy, Agilent, Illumina Affirm Commitment to Array Market in Light of Roche's Planned Exit

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Seeking to calm any researchers jittery about the future of the array market, representatives for Affymetrix, Agilent Technologies, and Illumina this week all vowed to continue to make microarrays and opened their arms to researchers displaced by Roche's recent decision to shutter or sell its NimbleGen array business.

Affy, Agilent, Illumina, and Roche have been the four largest array manufacturers for some time, as other large competitors, including GE Healthcare and Applied Biosystems — now Life Technologies — quit the market five years ago (BAN 1/2/2008).

But Roche has decided to largely exit the space by the end of this year and focus solely on its sequence capture solution phase and array technology. The company now plans to lay off most of its NimbleGen employees and is looking to sell the rest of its array menu to a willing buyer (BAN 6/12/2012).

While Roche plans its retreat, Affy, Agilent, and Illumina say that they are here to stay, and stressed that they see room for growth in the array market.

Affy has a "strong and unwavering commitment to the microarray market," Jasmine Gruia-Gray, head of global marketing at the Santa Clara, Calif.-based firm, told BioArray News this week. "We firmly believe that microarrays are an indispensable tool for gene expression, genotyping, and clinical applications," she said.

Likewise, Peter Fromen, Illumina's senior director of genomic applications and services, said that the San Diego vendor is "wholly committed" to its microarray business. "Arrays continue to be a highly economical and efficient tool for researchers to perform large-scale genetic analysis," Fromen said noting the uptake of the company's recently launched HumanOmniExome array (BAN 5/15/2012).

And an Agilent spokesperson said that the company is looking to "help minimize disruption of existing NimbleGen customers" and reiterated the vendor's "commitment to the continued investment and development of our microarray platform."

Bob Schueren, Agilent's general manager of genomics, told BioArray News that the company has no plans to stop making arrays and said that demand for Agilent's arrays is actually at an "all-time high."

As such, none of the trio has expressed an interest in acquiring NimbleGen's array assets, but instead are courting Roche NimbleGen's customer base.

"We have no intention of acquiring the NimbleGen assets but we are actively converting existing NimbleGen customers over to the Affymetrix solutions," said Affy's Gruia-Gray. Agilent and Illumina's spokespersons declined to comment on whether the firms would consider acquiring the NimbleGen array business.

Of the three major array platforms, Agilent's is arguably the most similar to NimbleGen in that it is a so-called open platform, meaning that customers can use third-party instrumentation to read the chips. Affy and Illumina' platforms are considered closed, as they require customers to buy their instruments in order to process their arrays, and other companies' chips cannot be processed on their systems, so an Illumina user cannot use a iScan to read an Affymetrix GeneChip.

Schueren noted that the Agilent and NimbleGen platforms' share a "similar workflow;" support two-color direct labeling for CGH, "just like what [NimbleGen customers] are used to doing;" use the "same custom microarray design;" and rely on the same instruments, so there is "no immediate need to purchase new instruments and lab equipment." Schueren also noted that NimbleGen customers can transfer their current designs to Agilent using Agilent's online eArray customization tool.

Interestingly, all three firms described next-generation sequencing as complementing their businesses, although RNAseq is widely considered to be replacing arrays as the platform of choice for many gene expression-based studies.

As a provider of both technology platforms, Fromen said that Illumina is "uniquely positioned" to "create further opportunities in whole genome, targeted, and custom content array projects across the research, translational, and consumer segments of the market."

"Our microarrays are now being used in more applications to validate results from sequencing or to take the outputs from sequencing SNPs, and apply them on a more cost-effective and higher-throughput platform, [such as] genotyping in human and [agricultural biotechnology] applications," said Affy's Gruia-Gray.

And Agilent's Schueren said that the sequencing "boom" has been "good" for Agilent, with continued demand for the company's SureSelect and HaloPlex target enrichment kits, as well as its SureFISH oligonucleotide probes for fluorescence in situ hybridization experiments, which it launched earlier this year (BAN 4/3/2012). All of these oligo-based products are manufactured at its array fabrication facility, he noted.

As for Roche NimbleGen users, they may soon have their pick. Dan Zabrowski, head of Roche Applied Science, told BioArray News last week that the Swiss company will "entertain offers from potential buyers," with the requirement that any company or interest that acquires the NimbleGen array business should be able to meet the needs of Roche's existing array customers going forward.

If Roche is unable to find a buyer with "sufficient commercial reach to be able to appropriately take over our customers," Zabrowski said the company will work with its customers to develop "alternative solutions for their needs." In terms of "alternative solutions," Zabrowski elaborated that Roche will "help them transition potentially to other products from other companies."

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