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With $35M from ABI Sale, Ambion Spin-Out to Tackle miRNAs and Cancer Dx; Tx an Interest Too


As Applied Biosystems' acquisition of Ambion nears completion, a cancer diagnostics start-up being created out of the diagnostics and services divisions of Ambion not included in the buy-out is expected to be fully ramped up by mid-year, according to founder Matt Winkler.

The new company, Asuragen, has also inked a deal that will maintain the ties Ambion had established with Rosetta Genomics, an Israeli company developing microRNA-based diagnostics and therapeutics, Winkler told RNAi News this week.

Last week, Ambion announced that ABI would buy its research products division, which includes a series of products for RNAi research, for $273 million in cash. As reported by RNAi News, Winkler, who founded Ambion in 1989, had been looking to sell this part of his company for some time in order to generate the funds necessary to spin out Ambion's diagnostics unit as a new company (see RNAi News, 1/5/2006).

"After 17 years of making tools for other scientists to study cancer, I wanted a chance to use those tools myself to see if I could make a major impact on cancer diagnosis and treatment," Winkler said in a statement released last week.

With the acquisition expected to close in late February, Winkler told RNAi News that Asuragen is expected to be fully operational by the summer. "We're [still] building out new space, and there's a lot of distraction in the process of integrating Ambion with [ABI]. So I would guess that in six months we'd be past that phase," he said.

"After 17 years of making tools for other scientists to study cancer, I wanted a chance to use those tools myself to see if I could make a major impact on cancer diagnosis and treatment."

Asuragen will be headquartered on Ambion's campus in Austin, Tex., and is being funded with more than $35 million from the ABI sale. The new firm will retain the 35,000 square feet of research, manufacturing, and office space used by Ambion's diagnostics division. An additional 45,000 square feet is being built out for occupancy in June.

About 93 of Ambion's 391 employees will be moving over to Asuragen, including Jeffrey Williams, general manager of Ambion's diagnostics division; John Dahler, Ambion's former CFO; Ana Ward, Ambion's general counsel; and David Brown, Ambion's associate director of research and development. With Ambion President Bruce Leander expected to take a position at ABI, Asuragen said it is actively recruiting a president.

Asuragen's primary focus will be to develop products to assist in early cancer diagnosis and predict treatment outcomes, and the company has rights to Ambion intellectual property related to both diagnostics and therapeutics.

Although this work will examine the role of "whatever RNA and DNA molecules are needed to facilitate an accurate [cancer] diagnosis and prognosis," a fact sheet provided by Winkler to RNAi News showed that miRNAs are expected to be a significant area of interest for Asuragen.

"MiRNA molecules are less prone to the damage that is caused by tissue handling in clinical situations, are generally more abundant and potentially easier to detect than mRNA transcripts, and even a group of a few hundred miRNAs have been shown to be more informative for classifying tumors than a 75-fold larger group of mRNA transcripts," the fact sheet states.

Importantly, Asuragen's miRNA diagnostics work could potentially extend into the therapeutics arena, where companies like Rosetta and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals are eyeing the use of the small RNAs to treat disease (see RNAi News, 11/4/2005 and 11/4/2005).

"In our efforts to identify miRNAs that can serve as analytes for diagnostic assays, we discovered a number of cases where mis-regulation of an miRNA appears to contribute to the disease," the Asuragen fact sheet states. "We have used cell models for cancer and found that adjusting the level of even a single miRNA can induce cancer cells to stop dividing or even die. Modulating many of these same miRNAs in normal cells has little or no effect.

Importantly, Asuragen's miRNA diagnostics work could potentially extend into the therapeutics arena, where companies like Rosetta and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals are eyeing the use of the small RNAs to treat disease.

"We are now working with academic and commercial partners to verify these results, [and] if the data are promising … we intend to pursue opportunities for drug development," the sheet notes.

One such partner might be Rosetta, which told RNAi News late last year that it intends to pursue the development of both miRNA-based diagnostics and therapeutics.

Winkler confirmed that Asuragen has established a partnership with Rosetta, which had previously signed a deal to provide Ambion with its proprietary miRNA sequences for use in its research products. That deal will remain with the Ambion division acquired by ABI.

Although he said that "Rosetta and Asuragen are working together," Winkler declined to comment in more detail about the arrangement in advance of a press release expected to be issued shortly. However, given the extensive overlap between the companies' interests, it seems likely that the partnership will be a broad one.

Beyond diagnostics, Asuragen will also continue to operate Ambion's services division, which was not part of the ABI deal. This unit will offer a GLP-level group of services including RNA isolation and gene-expression profiling on an Affymetrix platform, as well as a number of research services similar to the ones the diagnostics division uses to create molecular profiles of tumors for its own R&D programs.

According to the fact sheet, Asuragen will also sell Ambion's Armored RNA technology for RNA controls and standards for molecular diagnostic assays, cell banking and plasmid DNA products as pharmaceutical-grade transcription templates, and DNA standards and controls for diagnostic assays.

The company's services division will also conduct contract in vitro RNA development and manufacturing for human vaccines and diagnostics; custom oligonucleotide development and manufacturing for diagnostics kit components; and custom assay development, specializing in Luminex-based multiplex, multianalyte detection and assays based on real-time technology platforms.

Asuragen also includes a unit that will conduct cancer biomarker discovery research, and plans to out-license miRNAs and other discoveries associated with diseases other than cancer.

— Doug Macron ([email protected])

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