This article has been updated from a previous version to include additional comments from a Qiagen spokesperson.
By Ben Butkus
Qiagen disclosed yesterday that it is supplying a United Nations-affiliated pilot project with portable devices to perform ultra-fast molecular testing for veterinary diseases that can affect food supply in developing countries.
Under the agreement, Qiagen will supply ESE-Quant Tube Scanners to national health authorities in 35 emerging countries in Africa, Asia, and South America under the Joint FAO/IAEA Programme in veterinary diseases, a collaborative effort of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The deal marks the first application announced by Qiagen for the Quant Tube technology since it acquired its developer, Germany's ESE earlier this year. The company is also developing the portable molecular testing technology for human point-of-care diagnostics with undisclosed partners, a company spokesperson said.
Under the agreement with FAO/IAEA, Qiagen will initially supply up to 50 of the devices to the three-year pilot project, which will evaluate the ability of the scanners and FAO/IAEA-developed assays to detect avian flu (H5N1) in poultry, peste des petits ruminants in sheep and goats, and contagious bovine pleuro-pneumonia, also known as lung plague, in cattle.
Depending on the outcomes of these pilot projects, the agreement allows for future expansion of the veterinary diagnostic portfolio to 10 total livestock diseases and additional geographic regions, Qiagen said.
These livestock diseases, also called transboundary animal diseases, cause "serious economic damage" and threaten the food supplies of millions of people, Qiagen said in a statement. As an example it cited avian flu outbreaks that have led to the threat of human infection and precipitated the destruction of millions of domestic fowl in Asia, Africa, and Europe; and a 1995 epidemic of CBPP in Botswana that caused approximately $500 million in economic damage.
Qiagen also said that worldwide more than 1 billion sheep and goats, or approximately 60 percent of small ruminants, are at risk of contracting PPR. The FAO/IAEA initiative aims to use Qiagen's technology to help diagnose these diseases in the field, thereby enabling authorities to take rapid measures to contain potential outbreaks.
"We see molecular veterinary diagnostics as increasingly important to early detection of highly contagious diseases in animals," Hermann Unger, project manager for the Joint FAO/IAEA Programme in Vienna, said in a statement.
"To implement an effective containment strategy, we must have affordable, portable, quality-assured, and easy-to-use testing procedures," Unger added.
The ESE-Quant Tube Scanner weighs about two pounds and is about the size of a desktop telephone, according to Qiagen. It is activated with a single button, and is based on an isothermal nucleic acid amplification method called helicase-dependent amplification, which allows nucleic acid from sample materials to be amplified and analyzed without the need for laboratory conditions.
Qiagen also said that the scanner can process up to eight samples simultaneously and that users can forward results directly to a personal computer or laptop in the field.
Financial terms of the Joint FAO/IAEA deal were not disclosed. However, Qiagen spokesperson Thomas Theuringer told PCR Insider said that the agreement "should contribute to our overall sales and revenue streams." He also noted that the agreement was important from the standpoint of establishing an "emergent technology" with help from prominent public-private players.
The Joint FAO/IAEA project is the first application that Qiagen has disclosed for the Quant Tube technology, which the company brought in house as part of its $19 million January acquisition of German optical measurement firm ESE, now known as Qiagen Lake Constance after the region of Germany in which its offices are located.
Theuringer said that Qiagen has also inked "several other OEM partnerships which include applications on the ESE platform," although the company has not yet disclosed these deals. In addition, Theuringer said that Qiagen is "talking to other private and public partners about future projects."
In a February conference call discussing Qiagen's fourth-quarter and full-year 2009 earnings, CEO Peer Schatz told investors that the ESE acquisition was expected to give Qiagen a foothold in the point-of-care testing market; and that Qiagen would likely take molecular assays that it has already developed for its higher end laboratory instruments and port them to the ESE platform (PCR Insider, 2/11/10).
Schatz also said at the time that Qiagen intended to roll out a POC diagnostic platform based on the ESE instrumentation this year; and that it would target both the acute care and hospital-acquired infection markets in the US and molecular diagnostics and applied markets in Europe, Asia, and developing nations.
Theuringer this week confirmed that Qiagen is still pursuing human POC diagnostic applications for the ESE technology, and that it is doing so in collaboration with an undisclosed public-private entity similar in capacity and scope to the UN's FAO and IAEA.
"For molecular diagnostic applications, this will … address customers that we are not addressing right now," Theuringer said. "Right now we are targeting mid-size and larger hospitals and labs and reference labs; and with this technology we can target even smaller [labs] … maybe even physicians' offices, intensive care, emergency rooms, ambulances — all these kinds of smaller customers that don't have access to that laboratory infrastructure."
Theuringer also reiterated that due to its portability and isothermal amplification technology, the Quant Tube platform is "very attractive for molecular diagnostic applications in remote areas."
Theuringer declined to identify any specific human diagnostic tests that Qiagen is developing for Quant Tube. However, he said that the platform has been shown to work well for infectious diseases, and that "for the types of customers we've talked about, hospital-acquired infections are definitely an issue."
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