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CombiMatrix Reinvents Itself From Lab Toolmaker to Cancer Diagnostics Player

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if it will ever really make its presence felt in the new market. It has just 63 employees, annual revenue last year of $6.2 million, and tallied a net loss of $15 million. It was running dangerously low on cash last month, with only enough left to run into September according to its most recent quarterly report, although it has since raised another $8.25 million that gives it enough money to operate “well into 2010,” Kumar says. It is also hoping to receive a $36 million legal settlement that is being appealed, he says.

The sort of testing CombiMatrix is proposing is bound to run into skepticism. Scientists have struggled to find cancer markers that are a rock-solid predictors of malignancy, or poor prognosis. One example is the PSA test for prostate cancer, which measures a marker in the blood that can be a sign of malignancy, or more benign conditions, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Still, the strategy to move toward diagnostics makes some sense, says Kyle Serikawa, a senior research scientist with Novo Nordisk in Seattle, who has worked extensively with DNA microarray technologies.

“The Basic Research space is filled with Affymetrix and Illumina (and a little Agilent) now,” Serikawa says. “Seems to me that diagnostics is a much more open potential market.”

CombiMatrix has people on staff doing discovery work to come up with new markers of its own, Kumar says. He didn’t want to get into issues of patent strategy, but he says the company plans to publish research on the connection of these markers to various cancers.

Further down the road, CombiMatrix plans to introduce the cancer-screening product for healthy people by the third quarter of 2010. It would be made to screen for markers on five of the most common solid tumors—breast, prostate, colorectal, lung, and ovarian, Kumar says. That test will provide an early warning sign to a doctor, which will need to be verified with other tests, he says. Eventually, the CombiMatrix test will sell for about $300 per patient, but may start out a little higher in the beginning, Kumar says.

The biggest obstacle for CombiMatrix is a big one. Its new crop of customers isn’t familiar with the basics of its technology, or how it can be used in practice. “Physicians don’t really get training in genetics, and it’s our task to educate them,” Kumar says.

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