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Bibby Scientific, PCRmax Breathe New Life into Former Illumina qPCR System

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NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) — Through its acquisition of PCRmax announced last week, Staffordshire, UK-based Bibby Scientific intends to breathe new life into the ECO qPCR system, a low-cost benchtop platform formerly sold by Illumina but discontinued by that company last year.

Following the acquisition, the financial details of which were not disclosed, PCRmax is set to launch a 48-well version of the ECO system that features what the companies call "market-leading uniformity" that allows a real-time PCR experiment to be completed in under eight minutes.

In addition, PCRmax is launching along with the instrument a range of qPCR kits for use in a variety of markets including human pathogen detection, agriculture, veterinary medicine, food and water testing, and biothreat detection, the company said.

Illumina launched the ECO system in 2010 after acquiring the platform's developer, Helixis, earlier that year for up to $105 million. Helixis itself had been founded in 2007 based on intellectual property licensed from the California Institute of Technology, and had developed the ECO's predecessor, the Pixo qPCR system, based on that IP.

Upon its launch, Illumina advertised the platform as delivering performance comparable to existing qPCR systems but at a fraction of the cost, with a list price of under $15,000. By October 2011 Illumina had installed approximately 1,000 ECO systems and later had some trouble keeping up with demand. The company also said it would build a qPCR reagents portfolio to complement the platform.

However, last October Illumina decided to divest its fledgling qPCR business and exit the market altogether, citing its sequencing and array businesses as top priorities.

Enter PCRmax, a sales and distribution company that had been established in September 2013, also in Staffordshire, specifically to capture a significant share of the PCR and qPCR markets, a Bibby Scientific spokesperson told PCR Insider in an email.

"In mid-October 2013 Illumina announced the discontinuation of the ECO product line, and PCRmax contacted Illumina directly to discuss acquiring the ECO as it would enable us to gain a qPCR solution faster than previously planned," the spokesperson said, adding that a contract was signed this past March finalizing transference of the product line and underlying IP.

The spokesperson noted that although PCRmax will operate as a subsidiary of Bibby, it will benefit from Bibby's size and position in the marketplace. Bibby, which offers a range of qPCR instruments under the brand name Techne, "will provide the financial, production, and technical support to assist PCRmax in reaching its full potential," the spokesperson said.

According to a product brochure supplied by PCRmax, the ECO accommodates a unique 48-well polypropylene PCR plate that uses the same geometry as standard 384-well plates, but is one-eighth of the size. This enables users to dramatically reduce qPCR reagent volumes compared to traditional 96-well instruments while still producing a strong fluorescence signal.

Minimizing the plate size also significantly improves thermal uniformity, according to the company. A minimum volume of 5 µl is validated, cutting reagent costs in half and making more efficient use of expensive and hard-to-acquire template DNA samples, PCRmax said. Other features of the system are MIQE compliance, high-resolution melt functionality, four colors for multiplexing applications, and ±0.1ºC temperature uniformity.

In general, "the key performance specifications of the ECO remain the same" as the former Illumina platform, including "unparalleled uniformity, rapid ramp rates, easy-to-use software, a great user interface, and … small benchtop footprint," the spokesperson said. "These are all key attributes that the ECO had right back to Helixis and still remain."

In addition, PCRmax has installed a newer and more robust single-board computer and replaced the hard disk drive with a solid state flash drive. "Whilst the operator won't see these changes, we expect the performance of the system to be maintained and even improved," the spokesperson said.

PCRmax declined to disclose a price range for the platform or whether it would cost less than $15,000, but the spokesperson noted that the system "will remain highly competitive in the market."

It is unclear how many Illumina ECO systems are currently in use. Illumina declined to provide information about the platform for this article. However, Illumina still maintains a customer service web page for the instrument, and the Bibby spokesperson noted that Illumina "retains liability for all instruments they supplied." In addition, the spokesperson said that next year PCRmax intends to offer those customers an upgrade kit for their current instrument.

The revamped ECO platform may only be the tip of the PCR iceberg for Bibby and PCRmax, as PCRmax is planning several new product launches in the space over the coming months. Besides the aforementioned qPCR reagent kits, all of which are freeze-dried for ease of transportation, the company plans over the next four months to release a new range of endpoint PCR systems.

"These units will feature similar software and look to the ECO," the spokesperson said. "We expect to be taking orders for these in Q4 2014."

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