By Rick Perera
July 11, 2002 | BERLIN—A German biotech startup has its eyes on the microarray market dominated by Affymetrix Inc. and Agilent Technologies Inc. Scienion AG of Berlin says its chief advantage is a patented technique by which tiny droplets of a sample bind to the surface of a microarray, serving as a “reaction container without walls.” Because the droplets are anchored in a defined number and density, the company says it achieves much higher precision than is possible with standard arrays.
A spinoff of Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, Scienion recently unveiled its first two off-the-shelf products. Both are designed for research and diagnostics in specific disease areas. The sciTRACER Inflammation and the sciTRACER Cardiovascular sell for $180 and $270, respectively, says Holger Eickhoff, the Scienion CEO.
Eickhoff says the liquid technology is a key advantage. The sciTRACER Inflammation chip detects 170 genes known to be associated with a variety of inflammatory diseases. The cardiovascular chip detects 350 heart-related genes. Both chips use PCR-based (polymerase chain reaction) genetic sequences of 200 to 400 bases that were confirmed by MALDI-MS tag sequencing.
“This is a technique that circumvents many drawbacks when you handle liquids,” says Eickhoff. “Typically, liquids are stored in small containers. The smaller the container, the more the ratio increases of the surface to the real content. We can do these reactions not in containers but only in droplets, so we minimize the attachment of molecules to the chamber walls.”
The upshot, according to Eickhoff, is more exact and reproducible results. Though declining to quantify just how accurate the chips are, he says, “This is something which the market will decide. We will sell our chips only if we can prove our chips are better.”
Give Them What They Need
Scienion co-founder Wilfried Nietfeld, also of the Max Planck Institute, says many researchers manufacture their own microarrays, but that rising demand spurred the founding of an independent company. “The whole thing grew out of a time in the late ‘90s, during the second round of the German Genome Project. People were standing in line for chips, and we as an academic institution couldn’t possibly fill the need, so that’s how the firm came to be.” Founded in April 2001, the company now has 35 employees.
“We hope we can place these [chips] in the market and do well, since for these inflammatory and cardiovascular chips there’s currently no competing product available,” says Niefield. “We have to create the market at some stage, but so far this looks quite promising.”
Along with the microarrays, users will need a separate scanner, not manufactured by Scienion, and an incubation system or hybridization chamber that costs about $180. Software to process the system’s output consists of an image-acquisition program, which typically comes with the scanner, and an image-analysis program, which is available as freeware. Scienion can also complete more complex analysis in-house using its own proprietary software, which is not available to customers. “Our platform can be adapted not only to DNA; we can spot proteins, antibodies, and other molecules,” says Eickhoff. “The techniques of the other [companies] are limited to DNA only.”
Competitors may beg to differ. Affymetrix in particular sells more pre-fabricated microarrays than any other company in the world, and according to spokesman Wes Conard, “is considered the industry standard because of our reliability, reproducibility, and scalability.” Conard says of the competitor: “Scienion is an early-stage company with a new technology that has yet to reach widespread commercial acceptance in the United States and Europe.”
Scienion has a low profile in the United States, but the young German company thinks it can win market share with its custom-made chips, manufactured quickly and in small quantities according to customer specifications. “Agilent and Affymetrix have a relatively universal platform, but Scienion can create tailor-made chips,” says Nietfeld. “There are relatively few firms that a scientist can go to and say, ‘Please spot these 400 or 500 genes that interest me on a surface.’ ”
Among the customers already using Scienion for special projects are researchers at the universities of Würzburg and Tübingen studying the antibiotics-resistant microorganism Staphylococcus aureus, which poses infection risk in hospitals. Neurologists are also using the company’s microarrays to identify genes related to brain inflammation.
Rick Perera is a freelance writer based in Berlin. He formerly covered technology news for the IDG News Service.