DNA Chip Makers Bury the Hatchet

A potentially bruising battle over patents to fundamental DNA array technology has come to an end. Affymetrix Inc. of Santa Clara, California, and a rival British firm, Oxford Gene Technology (OGT), last week agreed to withdraw a string of lawsuits in the United States and Europe.

"Basically the litigation between us and OGT is over--it's done," says Rob Lipschutz, vice president for corporate development at Affymetrix. "We are very pleased because this lets us go back to providing tools for our customers." According to an Affymetrix notice posted on 26 March, the company is spending $19 million on the patent settlement and an unspecified "smaller" amount for legal fees. University of Oxford biochemist Ed Southern, who had filed similar patents in Europe, issued a statement on behalf of OGT saying he felt it was "essential for genomic research" to resolve the dispute, because his company and others wanted to devote their energies to developing and licensing the technology.

The settlement provided welcome relief for Affymetrix, which is contending with an embarrassing, but unrelated, problem: Some of its arrays have contained scrambled mouse-DNA data, as the company first disclosed in a 7 March notice to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). To assemble DNA chips, Affymetrix used information from a public database maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) in Bethesda, Maryland. Affymetrix told the SEC it was having trouble "because of the rapidly evolving nature of the public domain sequence databases."

Lipschutz made clear last week, however, that the glitch occurred when company employees processed the data. "There can be conflicting data in the database," he said. "It becomes quite a challenge to deal with potential ambiguities. ... We just didn't sort it out as well as we would have liked." Affymetrix plans to have replacement chips ready for those who want them in a matter of weeks, Lipshutz says. Replacing the scrambled chips could cost up to $4 million.

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Oxford Gene Technology