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BioTrove Acquisition Adds High-Density Format to Life Tech's PCR Lineup


By Bernadette Toner

Life Technologies' decision to acquire privately held BioTrove for its OpenArray platform gives the massive life science tools company a new format for its PCR portfolio — a flexible array about the size of a microscope slide that enables more than 3,000 PCR genotyping or qPCR gene expression assays at a time.

The acquisition "offers a great opportunity to provide our content in a higher-density format," John Gerace, vice president and general manager of Life Technologies' PCR business, told PCR Insider. "It's a very unique opportunity to have that kind of density in a simple workflow."

Financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.

Gerace noted that Life Tech's Applied Biosystems subsidiary currently offers more than a million gene-expression assays and nearly 5 million genotyping assays. Customers can get these assays preloaded on microtiter plates or on 384-well microfluidics cards, but until now have not been able to get most of that content in a higher-throughput format.

The acquisition grew out of a collaboration between BioTrove and ABI that began in 2007 and gave ABI exclusive rights to develop and market genotyping assays preloaded on the OpenArray platform. That agreement also gave ABI an option to work with BioTrove to co-develop high-throughput gene expression applications for the system.

Solidifying that relationship through an acquisition "just made sense," Gerace said. "We were already selling the genotyping applications, we were going to put gene expression on the platform. They were selling gene expression and we were selling genotyping, so there were channel synergies that we automatically get from this."

BioTrove currently offers a range of gene-expression assays for the OpenArray platform that use the SYBR chemistry. Gerace said that Life Tech plans to continue selling those assays, and will also augment the portfolio to include TaqMan-based gene expression assays.

SABiosciences currently provides the content for BioTrove's SYBR-based gene expression assays. Qiagen announced last week that it plans to acquire SAB for $90 million in a deal expected to close by the end of the year (see story, this issue), but Gerace said that he does not expect that acquisition to impact BioTrove's product line.

Gerace said that Life Technologies is adding the new format to its PCR line in an effort to appeal to an increasingly "fragmented" gene expression market.

"There are going to be customers who want much more flexibility, and there are going to be customers who just want to order what they need and get it delivered to them," he said. With the OpenArray, "we're aiming for the customer who wants more standardization and control, and less variability in what goes into their assays from a formatting standpoint."

He noted that the company is trying to offer products that appeal to customers working across all stages of the discovery and development pipeline — from early stage discovery, where there are many markers and few samples; through to validation where the markers decrease and the samples increase; and then commercialization, where there are only a few markers and many samples.

Next-generation sequencing and microarrays represent the earliest point on that continuum, Gerace said, enabling "hypothesis-free" discovery that is often at the genome-wide scale. Life Tech considers OpenArray to be a useful tool for the next step in the process — validation.

"A microarray platform isn't a very good platform to validate because you've got very limited quantitation and very low dynamic range," he said. But while qPCR is considered to be the gold standard for validation, there is a "multiplexing challenge" with traditional formats.

There are some higher-throughput PCR options — Roche has introduced a 1,536-well LightCycler, for example — but Gerace noted that these systems often require automated liquid-handling equipment and are not well suited for smaller labs.

The OpenArray "fits nicely for a microarray-type customer who wants much easier workflow, much faster turnaround time, and much higher levels of quantification and dynamic range," he said.

The OpenArray plate contains 3,072 so-called "through-holes" with a volume of 33 nanoliters each that can be loaded with reagents to perform individual PCR reactions on up to 144 samples. The plates are run on the OpenArray NT Cycler, which can image three OpenArray plates simultaneously.

Gerace said that the first TaqMan assays for the platform have not yet been decided, but noted that microRNA panels and pathogen-detection panels "seem to be a good choice." The company also considers the platform to be "really nicely suited for digital PCR applications," Gerace said, but did not elaborate.

Life Technologies recently acquired Cytonix, a microfluidics firm, for an undisclosed amount for its intellectual property related to digital PCR technology.

Exit Strategy

The acquisition comes nearly a year after BioTrove, citing "unfavorable market conditions," withdrew its registration statement for an initial public offering in which it planned to raise around $75 million.

In addition to its OpenArray products, the company also sells the RapidFire system — a high-speed, automated, sample-preparation system for mass spectrometry applications. Once the Life Technologies acquisition closes, BioTrove will spin out the RapidFire assets into an independent firm called Biocius Life Sciences.

According to filings with the US Securities and Exchange Commission related to its IPO, BioTrove posted total revenues of $4.6 million for the first half of 2008 — nearly double the $2.8 million it reported for the same period of 2007.

Sales for the OpenArray system in that period were $1.2 million compared to $1.1 million in the first half of 2007.

BioTrove reported $2.1 million of OpenArray revenue for full-year 2007, around 44 percent of the company's total revenues of $4.8 million.

As of June 30, 2008, BioTrove had an accumulated deficit of $66.7 million and $11.2 million in cash and cash equivalents.

The company had 78 full-time employees as of Aug. 1, 2008.

BioTrove is based in Woburn, Mass. Gerace said that all the OpenArray staff and operations will remain in Woburn for the "foreseeable future."

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