U.S. Genomics pushes for MicroRNA focus

Corporate profits are certainly a major impetus for U.S. Genomics’ new Direct Results fee-for-service program, but there is another side as well: The goal of encouraging more scientists to count individual molecules of microRNA (miRNA) in samples.

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WOBURN, Mass.—Corporate profits are certainly a major impetus for U.S. Genomics' new Direct Results fee-for-service program, but there is another side as well: The goal of encouraging more scientists to count individual molecules of microRNA (miRNA) in samples.
The ability to look at individual molecules is "unavailable anywhere else," says Tim Germann, vice president of sales and marketing at U.S. Genomics, adding that "as you talk to investigators, they're looking for ways to look at molecules directly."
One reason to do that, according to Germann, is that such methods are more accurate than using amplification techniques. In addition, the number of researchers working with miRNAs can only rise, Germann predicts, given what he calls a "land grab" for determining the molecules' potential therapeutic value.
Researcher Frank Slack, associate professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale University, agrees. Slack has been involved with miRNA for more than 10 years and sees growing numbers of researchers investigating it. "What's making [miRNAs] intriguing at the moment," he says, "is that they remained unknown for so long." Although microRNA research is in its very early stages, Slack notes, miRNAs could prove important because, in principle, miRNA-like drugs could be developed using existing antisense and RNA technologies in design.
Slack says miRNA researchers are "scrambling to find out as much as we can" to determine how approximately 1,000 known human miRNAs, which are naturally occurring, function. Only five have been studied significantly, but he notes that some miRNAs are clearly important because they regulate known genes or show up at disease genes.
Slack predicts miRNAs could be a big story in another five years and notes they are "pertinent for the biotech industry because you really want to understand how the drug is working" to help new medications avoid side effects.
U.S. Genomics and Germann also see the potential of miRNAs as "probably very important" despite not knowing how much of the genome miRNAs might regulate. In the meantime, says Germann, "we look forward to bringing the technology to a lot of people, either through instrumentation or Direct Results."
U.S. Genomics has no direct competitors in this arena, Germann believes, and it would like to see researchers use its single molecule biology instead of other techniques, like cloning and Northern blot. The Direct Results program leverages the company's Trilogy 2020 Single Molecule Analyzer instrumentation.
  Cost is $475 for running an RNA sample against one miRNA target; each additional sample against the same target costs $12. Results are generally available within one or two weeks. U.S. Genomics has over 400 assays across four species—human, mouse, rat, and chicken—with fruit flies to join that roster soon, and it covers about 411 miRNA targets. New targets are added weekly.
A fee-for-service model is valuable, the company notes, because U.S. Genomics' Trilogy 2020 equipment is expensive, running $80,000 to $100,000 apiece.
Germann expects Direct Results prices to appeal to researchers with grants in particular. "The granting agencies look to the publications to know where the research dollars go," Germann says, so the appearance of several articles this year in Nature about miRNAs should help to drive demand from awardees.

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