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NanoString Expands nCounter Product Line, Deepens Research Ties With Pharma


NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – As NanoString Technologies makes a concerted push into making immuno-oncology a larger part of its business, it is developing and launching new products and partnerships to that end.

In recent months the firm has launched a third, smaller version of its nCounter molecular analysis system; signed new partnerships, including a research collaboration with Merck; and begun evaluating its new RNA/protein assay.

Designing the cartridge-based nCounter Sprint expression analyzer was a significant engineering project, NanoString CEO Brad Gray told GenomeWeb, but it opens up new markets for the firm to sell instruments to. "It's the same highly precise chemistry, with a smaller footprint and lower throughput," Gray said. But with a list price of $149,000 — compared to a list price of $235,000 for the nCounter Max and $285,000 for the Flex — it will be more accessible to smaller labs, he said.

"We identified the need to make our technology more affordable years ago," Gray said, adding that it was previously affordable "only for the most well-funded researchers." The firm's market research showed that scientists often make a trade-off between throughput, number of genes, and cost or footprint. "There was a segment who we weren't reaching with traditional nCounter Max and Flex configurations, with lower throughput needs that were half of a core lab and who wanted a system that cost in range of $150,000 or less," Gray said.

The Sprint has a footprint of 91 cm by 76 cm and throughput of 12 lanes per six hours. It accepts total RNA, cell lysates in guanidinium isothiocyanate, RNA derived from formalin-fixed paraffin-embedded samples, and Qiagen PaxGene-lysed whole blood samples.

It took NanoString engineers three years to merge the sample preparation and image analysis boxes that make up the other nCounter systems into one box. "The engineering challenge was to take the sample prep station manipulations and put that on a microfluidic card," Gray said. But that came with certain benefits. "In the process we were able to take out a lot of the cost," he said.

Gray said he hopes to see the revenue benefit of consumables for the nCounter Sprint in the fiscal year 2016. "We do not expect the Sprint to contribute meaningfully to [consumables] pullthrough in the current year," he said on a conference call following the release of NanoString's second quarter 2015 financial results. "Typically the first consumables order comes in the quarter subsequent to purchase."

The new system increases the number of researchers NanoString can market to by a factor of two or three, Gray said. "It's changed the nature of the dialog sales people are having from, 'Could you afford the technology?' to dialog about which of our instruments is the right one for the customer," he said, adding that the sales team can return to potential customers who hadn't been able to afford an nCounter before, or who the firm had never engaged with.

NanoString has also recently launched several new research partnerships leveraging its nCounter instruments, most notably with Merck and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

The Merck partnership came from that company's use of the nCounter system in researching biomarkers for its checkpoint-inhibitor therapy Keytruda (pmrolizumab). The two companies are now working to develop a companion diagnostic for the therapy. Gray said that NanoString was likely to bring in an additional $4.5 million in through collaborations in the fiscal year 2015, but that it would not recognize all of that as revenue. The firm also started a pilot study with an undisclosed partner that it said could lead to development of a companion diagnostic.

NanoString has also launched an early access program for its RNA/protein assay based on the firm's molecular barcoding approach to counting RNAs for gene expression. While the commercial launch won't happen until later this year, Gray said NanoString has made the assays available to three pharmaceutical partners and two academic research partners, but declined to disclose who they were. He said others were interested and that NanoString may invite one or two more to test the assay, but the point of the program is to work out kinks. "We want sophisticated users to tell us what works and what didn't," Gray said.

The RNA/protein assay will start out for research use only. "We certainly hope that our customers will find clinical uses for it and over time we can develop in vitro diagnostics based on this technology," Gray said.