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Biochips Go Big Time

Biotech: Microelectronic and communications firms turn to life sciences.

In the last few years, the biotech industry has set out to establish its own version of Moore’s Law, shrinking the tools of the trade onto postage-stamp-sized “biochips.” The hope is that the smaller/faster/cheaper approach that worked so well for computer-chip manufacturers will be a boon to biotech as well. The success of early biochip startups like Santa Clara, CA-based Affymetrix has helped to establish the field, and now giants from microelectronics and communications are moving in as well.

Motorola, Hitachi, Corning and others are entering the biochip business in anticipation of a market expected to grow to $10 billion within the next five to 10 years. “Biochips are the next big thing, so it behooves us to get involved in this industry,” says Mark McDonald, president of Hitachi Instruments. The most common strategy for these high-tech titans has been to forge alliances with smaller biotech companies. Motorola has partnered with more than half-a-dozen companies, and last year it acquired Pasadena, CA-based Clinical Micro Sensors for its DNA biochip technology.

For the semiconductor chip makers, biochips are a natural fit. Motorola is applying the same techniques it uses for manufacturing integrated circuit boards to the production of one type of biochip, whose surface contains tiny electrodes attached to fragments of DNA. Using technology found in sensors for airbags, the company is also developing biochip devices for detecting infectious diseases.

The term “biochips” actually refers to both DNA microarrays or “gene chips”-DNA-covered pieces of glass or plastic capable of analyzing thousands of genes at a time-and microfluidic chips, which contain networks of microscopic channels and reservoirs for processing and analyzing biological samples. The goal is to use these tools to better understand the role played by genes in health and disease, to speed the development of drugs, to improve diagnostic tools, and even to build handheld devices that test for microbes in food.

If the demand for such devices booms as expected, the smaller firms will need the manufacturing power of big industrial partners to keep products on the shelf. And even though early biochip firms such as Affymetrix will likely continue to churn out chips as well, they’ll no longer be the only game in town.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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