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NanoString Scoops Up Breast Cancer Technology, Pushes Ahead in Diagnostics

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PAM50 gene signature, comes from four researchers. They are: Charles Perou of the University of North Carolina; Matthew Ellis of Washington University in St. Louis; Philip Bernard of the University of Utah; and Torsten Nielsen of the BC Cancer Agency.

Those researchers have long been curious about how useful it might be to physicians if they could classify patients based on intrinsic subtypes based on their PAM50 gene signature. Through research efforts, they learned that the NanoString tool could generate a consistently reliable result, Gray says. The subtypes are thought to be useful for both establishing a patient’s prognosis, and showing how a patient is or isn’t responding to therapy, Gray says.

NanoString hopes to tap into this market through selling a modified version of its nCounter instrument to hospitals and pathology labs, as well as the assays to run on the machines. This is different than one clear alternative—setting up a centralized company service lab, and asking doctors to ship the samples in for analysis. “We’ll allow the pathologists to do their job,” Gray says.

The centralized lab approach has been popularized by the market leader in molecular diagnostics for breast cancer, Redwood City, CA-based Genomic Health (NASDAQ: GHDX). NanoString hopes that by selling instruments to the customers and letting them run the machines themselves, it will enable them to get their test results faster, and allow for global distribution, Gray says. The information on PAM50 subtypes itself will also be a new piece of data beyond what is widely available to clinicians today, he says.

Right before hanging up with Gray—actually my cell phone battery died, an occupational hazard, I suppose—I asked about how the traditional life sciences tool business is performing for NanoString. He told me that many pharma companies have started buying the nCounter, and he followed up with an e-mail to say specifically that nine biotech and pharma companies now use the machine for their R&D efforts. By 2012, he said the life sciences tool business will be profitable, although he stopped short of saying the company at large will be profitable then.

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