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Roche Executive Says Firm is Seeking Buyer for NimbleGen Array Business

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While Roche is committed to phasing out microarray production by the end of this year, its NimbleGen array menu could continue on under the stewardship of another company, a Roche executive suggested this week.

Dan Zabrowski, head of Roche Applied Science, said 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.

Such a buyer should offer "sufficient commercial reach to be able to appropriately take over our customers," Zabrowski said. "If that's not successful, we would work closely with our customers to develop alternative solutions for them."

Roche confirmed last week that it has decided to exit the microarray business (see related story, this issue). Its egress will be marked by a reduction in headcount at Roche NimbleGen's headquarters in Madison, Wis., as well as the closure of Roche NimbleGen's two main manufacturing sites in Reykjavik, Iceland, and Waldkraiburg, Germany.

Roche paid $272.5 million to acquire NimbleGen Systems in 2007. The company's array portfolio has grown since then and currently includes chips for comparative genomic hybridization studies, copy number analysis, gene expression profiling, DNA methylation analysis, and chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP)-on-chip experiments, as well as instrumentation and software. In recent months, the firm also began introducing arrays for SNP genotyping (BAN 4/24/2012). Roche NimbleGen also maintains a roster of certified service providers in nearly a dozen geographies, including Ambry Genetics, ImaGenes, and CapitalBio, to name a few.

According to Zabrowski, Roche NimbleGen CEO Frank Pitzer is responsible for identifying potential buyers for the company's array assets. BioArray News interviewed Pitzer shortly after his appointment two years ago (BAN 7/20/2010). At that time, the company was positioning its arrays for use in molecular diagnostics, with an eye on the constitutional cytogenetics market, in particular.

Zabrowski said that Roche currently has no potential buyer in sight for the NimbleGen array business, though he noted that the decision is only a week old. He said that the company's "number one priority" is to work with its existing customers to "ensure continuity" for their projects.

"If we can find an appropriate buyer for the DNA arrays business, we will consider that, and if not, we would work with our customers to develop alternative solutions for their needs," said Zabrowski. In terms of "alternative solutions," Zabrowski elaborated that Roche will "help them transition potentially to other products from other companies."

In the meantime, while Roche looks for a buyer, the company will still manufacture and sell arrays through the end of the year, he said.

'Mindset Shift'

Roche's decision to unload its array business is tied to its strategy to be the first or second player in the markets in which it chooses to compete. As Roche NimbleGen was widely considered to be the fourth player in the array market — behind Illumina, Affymetrix, and Agilent Technologies — its fate was therefore sealed.

Moreover, Roche has undergone a "bit of a mindset shift," according to Zabrowski. "Where in the past, we were structured around different technologies and platforms, what we are moving to is more of the view of the customer, in this case, the sequencing customer," he said. The company's various sequencing offerings, such as its 454 business and its NimbleGen sequence capture products, will be consolidated into a single business unit called Sequencing Solutions.

Despite this reorganization, Roche will continue to use both the 454 and NimbleGen names, he noted.

"We have no plans at this point to change our brand," said Zabrowski. "The 454 brand will stay, and for the sequencing capture product line, we will continue to sell under the brand of NimbleGen in the foreseeable future."

Do Array Platforms Ever Die?

The future of Roche NimbleGen's array portfolio is still unclear, but a good number of discontinued array platforms have been revived by new owners.

GE Healthcare for several years sold CodeLink bioarrays, a business originally developed at Motorola, before similarly deciding to shutter the line in 2007. In the case of CodeLink, the array assets were snatched up by Tempe, Ariz.-based Applied Microarrays, which has since become a custom array provider, though sales of legacy CodeLink catalog arrays comprise a tiny portion of the privately held firm's overall revenues (BAN 11/2/2010).

More recently, GE transferred its FAST protein microarray product line to Maine Manufacturing in 2010. GE had gained the FAST portfolio when it acquired Whatman in 2008 (BAN 11/4/2008). Maine Manufacturing has since secured several National Science Foundation awards to further develop the technology and has been "cashflow positive since day one," a company executive said earlier this year (BAN 3/6/2012).

And though it took time, Nanogen was able to find a buyer for its NanoChip platform. In 2010, more than two years after San Diego-based Nanogen discontinued the platform, Gamidor Diagnostics, an Israeli firm, acquired the NanoChip assets, which now support its genetics and pharmacogenetics testing services (BAN 2/2/2010).

Not all discontinued array lines live on, though. Applied Biosystems, now a division of Life Technologies, ceased selling its 1700 Chemiluminescent Expression Analysis System in 2007 and stopped supporting it in 2009. However, data produced on the 1700 continues to surface in new publications. A team of researchers at Oslo University Hospital, for instance, acquired the remaining 1700 array inventory to identify biomarkers linked to a number of cancers. While the group no longer uses the ABI arrays, its findings were discussed in a publication earlier this year (BAN 3/13/2012).

- Julia Karow contributed reporting for this article.

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