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Life Tech Buys Irish Microfluidics Startup Stokes Bio to Bolster qPCR Play

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By Ben Butkus

This article was originally published on April 28.

Life Technologies yesterday capped a busy week of news in the PCR space by announcing that it has acquired Stokes Bio, an Irish startup developing microfluidics-based technologies for quantitative PCR, for an undisclosed amount.

Stokes Bio's technology platform will enable high-throughput, PCR-based genetic analyses, particularly in the area of agricultural biology, according to company executives.

Life Tech Chairman and CEO Greg Lucier disclosed the acquisition yesterday during a conference call discussing the company's Q1 2010 financial results. Lucier said that Stokes Bio's technology "redefines the current play-safe paradigm for the PCR process, generating orders of magnitude more data in less time."

Stokes Bio's microfluidics-based system enables "high-throughput, highly flexible genotyping, gene expression analysis, and digital PCR," and is "well-suited to meet the ever-growing demand for higher throughput genomic analysis in agriculture, drug discovery, translational research, and other applications being fuelled by the rapid rate of discovery from next-generation sequencing systems such as ours," Lucier added.

The acquisition is the latest in a recent spate of product launches and acquisitions designed to further build out Life Tech's PCR franchise. Just last week, the company launched the ViiA 7, a new real-time PCR instrument platform that Life Tech said has been built from the "ground up" and is intended to serve as the template for all of the company's future-generation PCR platforms (PCR Insider, 4/22/2010).

"The launch of the ViiA 7 System is part of our broader strategy to extend our leadership position in PCR by setting new technology standards," Lucier said during this week's call.

The company began executing this strategy in mid-2009 when it acquired Cytonix for intellectual property related to digital PCR technology; and then followed that in November with the acquisition of BioTrove to integrate its OpenArray platform for high-throughput gene expression and genotyping into PCR applications.

"Building out our PCR franchise through both internal development and the acquisition of technologies is just one example of how we are investing in our future," Lucier said. "The acquisition of Stokes Bio is another very exciting step forward as we continue to build out and redefine the PCR industry."

Stokes was founded in 2005 by Chief Technology Officer Mark Davies and Chief Science Officer Tara Dalton based on technology developed at Ireland's Stokes Research Institute.

Stokes' nanoliter-scale microfluidics based systems are designed for quantitative PCR-based genetic analysis applications such as measuring gene expression and detecting gene targets, according to the company's website. Stokes said that its platform can be used in basic life science research, molecular diagnostics, pathogen detection, and pharmacogenomics; and that it is developing products ranging from point-of-care diagnostics to high-throughput arrays.

Stokes has developed three technology families — liquid bridges, thermal cycling of droplets, and isothermal amplification and detection — that, according to its website, can be applied as enabling components for existing microfluidic systems or combined to create whole systems.

The liquid bridges technology partitions a solution into droplets, mixes the droplets together, and queues droplets containing different chemistries prior to introducing them into a device such as a thermal cycler. The solution can be a sample of interest or assay reagents to be combined with the sample; and the droplets can be arranged in series and parallel, such that multiple sample solutions can be arrayed with multiple gene assays of interest, the company said.

Meantime, the company has also developed technology that routes the droplets through multiple heating zones for amplification and quantitative detection of nucleic acids; while the isothermal amplification tech uses natural convection to conduct amplification in real time. The latter technology also consumes little power, is portable, and can provide quantitative result in 20 minutes, Stokes says.

In another Q&A conference call for Life Tech investors following the company's Q1 earnings call yesterday, Peter Dansky, president of Life Tech's Molecular Biology Systems business, provided additional clues on how Stokes Bio's technology will fit into Life Tech's PCR portfolio.

"This is a very early-stage technology company," Dansky said. "In terms of a current customer base, there really isn't one," with the exception of a licensing and R&D deal announced in January with agricultural giant Monsanto to use Stokes Bio's technology in agricultural genotyping and gene analysis studies.

"This is certainly a first port of call for this technology — developing very high-throughput genotyping solutions for ag bio," Dansky said. "That's a market [Life Tech is] in today, and is a customer base that we serve today.

"Moving forward, we really see this tech deploying across the full range of the PCR world, from research into commercial applications," Dansky added. "We don't really see it as a shift, but as an immediate opportunity. It's very strong in ag bio, mainly because that's an area that really drives very high-throughput applications."

Q1 Results

For the first quarter of 2010, Life Tech reported a 14 percent (10 percent organic) year-over-year increase in revenues driven by double-digit growth for all three of its divisions: Molecular Biology Systems, Genetic Systems, and Cell Systems.

Overall, Life Tech logged total revenues of $884.9 million for the three-month period ended March 31, compared to $775.7 million for the first quarter of 2009.

The company's Molecular Biology Systems division, which includes its PCR portfolio, reported revenue of $432 million, up 13 percent from the same quarter a year ago. Meantime, Genetic Systems had revenue of $238 million, up 14 percent; and Cell Systems had revenue of $214 million, an 11 percent increase.

Lucier said that Life Tech expects to grow revenue one to two percent faster than the market for the foreseeable future, primarily through the introduction of new products. He also said the firm has focused its R&D efforts over the past two years on several key areas including genetic sequencing, synthetic biology, flow cytometry, benchtop devices, and PCR.

"Investments in these areas will increasingly move us into higher growth commercial and clinical realms," Lucier said.

Life Tech also provided updates on certain aspects of its PCR business, particularly as it applies to molecular diagnostic applications.

Lucier said during the Q1 conference call that the recently launched ViiA 7 platform, which is currently for research use only, was "designed with clinical applications in mind."

He added that Life Tech expects to get a CE mark for in vitro diagnostics for the ViiA platform later this year and ultimately plans to submit an application for 510(k) approval in the US. "Gaining these clearances will extend the application of the ViiA 7 System beyond research labs and into clinical and diagnostic markets," Lucier said.

In the follow-up conference call, Dansky told investors that they could expect Life Tech to pursue 510(k) clearance for the ViiA 7 sometime next year. The company already has achieved the CE Mark for IVD and 501(k) clearance for its previous-generation PCR platform, the Applied Biosystems 7500 Fast Dx system.

In addition, an investor asked whether there were any constraints on Life Tech's ability to pursue IVD clearance for its PCR instrument platforms based on patent and licensing issues with Celera related to the formal 2008 split of Celera and Applied Biosystems, prior to the latter being acquired by Life Tech.

"The obligations relating to the Celera separation means that there were certain areas that the company couldn't play for a certain period of time. It's not general to the market, [they are] specific tests based on what was their existing portfolio," Dansky said.

"We don't have any issues there," he added. "We're unimpeded relative to instrumentation as well as to a broad range of the market unrelated to [Celera's] portfolio."

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