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GE Healthcare to Expand Molecular Forensic Analysis Footprint with NetBio Pact

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GE Healthcare and Network Biosystems this week announced a collaboration to commercialize rapid DNA analysis products for forensic applications.

The agreement will help GE Healthcare further penetrate the forensic analysis space by giving it access to NetBio's rapid, sample-to-answer human identification system, which is currently under development and expected to hit the market before the end of the year, company officials said this week.

For NetBio, the collaboration provides it with an immediate global and expansive sales and marketing team for its platform. In addition, NetBio will gain access to GE Healthcare's extensive stable of molecular biology products, some of which may be integrated into future versions of the human identification platform.

GE Healthcare and NetBio did not disclose the financial and other terms of their deal. In a statement, the companies noted that the alliance will "combine the global distribution reach and the world-class sample collection capabilities of GE Healthcare Life Sciences with NetBio’s innovative DNA analysis technologies to provide advanced products for DNA fingerprinting, helping to make the process easier and quicker than current methods."

Further expanding on that idea, Mike Benevento, general manager of global services for GE Healthcare, told PCR Insider this week that under the partnership, GE would serve as "global sales, tech support, and service agent" for the NetBio system.

GE Healthcare already has a significant foothold in the forensic analysis market with the EasiCollect sample collection product sold by its subsidiary Whatman, which GE Healthcare acquired in 2008 for around $713 million.

The EasiCollect product combines a foam-tipped applicator swab with FTA paper and is well established in forensics labs worldwide as a method for obtaining buccal cells and storing them at ambient temperatures for long periods of time for downstream DNA purification and amplification.

"That's really the foothold that we have in that market," Benevento said. "We became much more interested in [that market] as many technologies are evolving in that area, including rapid DNA analysis, and we were looking for a way to expand our business in that area."

GE Healthcare identified NetBio as a potential partner after having "ongoing dialogues" with several other companies that are developing technologies to expedite DNA analysis for law enforcement applications. "Just through vetting those … we thought NetBio was among the stronger players. We were looking at it from a long-term viability standpoint," Benevento said.

He did not reveal the other companies GE Healthcare evaluated for potential partnerships. However, some other firms developing rapid molecular-based human identification systems include ZyGem, NEC, and IntegenX, the latter of which inked a deal with Promega last August to supply reagents for its human identification system (PCR Insider, 8/4/2011). In terms of commercial competitors, Life Technologies' Applied Biosystems is regarded as the market leader in instrument platform and kits for short tandem repeat, or STR, analysis.

NetBio's human ID system combines sample prep, DNA amplification, and amplicon detection via capillary electrophoresis into a push-button benchtop instrument.

"The platform performs human identification by DNA fingerprinting," Richard Selden, NetBio's executive chairman and chief scientific officer, told PCR Insider this week. "It involves inserting the sample into the instrument, [where] DNA is purified. There is a multiplex amplification of STR loci, and the amplicons are separated electrophoretically and detected by laser-based fluorescence. So it's an STR amplicon sizing application."

Selden added that the platform requires "no operator intervention once the sample is added, and it takes 83 minutes from start to finish."

Benevento noted that NetBio's platform performs "standard STR analysis consistent with what's currently conducted in forensics labs in the US and multiple other countries. It's really just automating and simplifying the existing process, not changing it." He noted that this is important in an applied market, "because any changes to [established] techniques would require a lot more validation to be accepted."

While GE Healthcare's EasiCollect product would not integrate with NetBio's platform per se, the combination of the two technologies is expected to provide customers with a more complete forensics workflow, officials from both companies noted.

"There is a need in most cases to collect an additional sample for reference at a later time, and Whatman FTA cards will be included to collect that sample and preserve it," Benevento said.

The EasiCollect product would likely have been used anyway by forensics labs in combination with a commercialized NetBio platform. However, Selden noted that GE's expertise will be valuable in helping customers work out the logistics of such a workflow.

"We're excited about this for three main reasons," Selden said. "GE already has a major presence in the forensic market, and that ability to do sales and marketing is something that NetBio now doesn't have to develop on its own."

In addition, "GE's experience with sample collection and forensic process flow is something that we think is going to have a major impact on adoption of the product," Selden added. "And [third], GE has an enormous amount of related technology, and we think that means there is possibility for all kinds of synergies between NetBio's platform technology and GE's platform technology."

For instance, Selden noted, GE Healthcare sells a number of well-established molecular biology tools such as fluorescent dye chemistry, polymerases, and collection media. "The ability to have access to those in the future to continue to improve and expand our platform is something that is incredibly exciting to NetBio," he noted.

Those potential synergies could also find their way into other end markets besides forensics. NetBio is also developing versions of its core molecular testing technology for a number of DNA testing and diagnostic applications, including biothreat detection and diagnosis of sexually transmitted diseases (PCR Insider 6/14/2012 and 3/22/2012).

NetBio has previously stated that it expects its human identification platform to be commercially available by the end of this year. Both GE Healthcare and NetBio this week confirmed that timeline, but declined to provide a specific launch date.

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