The Swedish firm Cartana and US-based ReadCoor have recently been snapped up by the US giant 10x Genomics to get hold of their spatial transcriptomics technology. What impact will these acquisitions have on the burgeoning field going forward?
Last week, 10x Genomics took over ReadCoor for a smooth €298M ($350M). This followed the acquisition of Stockholm-based startup Cartana in September for €35M. The big consolidation by 10x Genomics is sending shockwaves throughout the small but flourishing spatial transcriptomics industry.
Spatial transcriptomics resembles regular transcriptomics, where you sequence messenger RNA found in a specific tissue, such as a tumor sample, to find out which genes are active. In addition to this, spatial transcriptomics also gives vital clues about where each gene is active within a sample.
This technology could one day transform research and diagnostics in diseases where the structure of the tissue is important. For example, the technique is currently being used to find drug targets in different parts of the brain. Additionally, it could one day be used to find out which immune cells are near a patient’s tumor, which could help tailor immunotherapy treatments.
Spatial transcriptomics is part of a wider field called spatial omics, which includes multiple techniques that take into account the spatial distribution of the sample measured, such as spatial proteomics. This technology is the focus of a research hub in Stockholm called SciLifeLab.
“Spatial profiling is one of the hotter areas of research at the moment,” said Joseph Bergenstråhle, a PhD student at SciLifeLab who owned stakes in Cartana.
“As the field is rapidly evolving, it is hard to speculate which, and if, any technology will stand above the others in the future. For now, the different alternatives come with their own advantages and weaknesses, and no technology excels in all aspects.”
Cartana isn’t the first Stockholm-based spatial transcriptomics company to be picked up by 10x Genomics. This title goes to a firm called Spatial Transcriptomics, which was purchased in late 2018.
Bergenstråhle sees 10x Genomics’ latest acquisitions as an attempt to grab as much intellectual property as it can in such a diverse field. Both deals have bagged 10x Genomics over 110 new patents.
“10x Genomics has also had its fair share of patent infringements in the past, and maybe it’s seeking to stand on firmer ground this time,” he noted.
10x Genomics aims to integrate Cartana’s technology with the technology it gained from the company Spatial Transcriptomics. The two techniques are complementary; Cartana’s is more detailed with a better resolution, but has a smaller amount of genes that can be detected at a time.
“The ReadCoor acquisition is more curious,” said Bergenstråhle. “There is no publicly available data on how well the system performs, and if its promises are true, it would be a direct competitor to the company’s existing product lineup.”
According to Bergenstråhle, it’s possible that the merged technology of Cartana and Spatial Transcriptomics could serve as a cheap service for clients that want spatial assays carried out on samples. ReadCoor’s technology — based on research carried out by George Church and his colleagues in the US — is more expensive, complex, and automated, so could benefit bigger clients.
With ReadCoor and Cartana now absorbed into 10x Genomics, there are two fewer independent companies in the small spatial transcriptomics field. One of the remaining big players is the US firm NanoString Technologies. Bergenstråhle believes that it’s too early in the game to know how this landscape of potentially little competition might affect pricing for clients.
“As of now, these platforms are optimized for different use cases. The price pressure is therefore low in general,” he told me. “While consolidation in general could reduce future competitiveness in the market, I would rather picture the prices coming down to draw broader adoption and larger-scale customers. It’s still very early days.”
The spatial transcriptomics field is moving fast. Bergenstråhle sees researchers increasingly focusing on integrating spatial transcriptomics with spatial epigenomics and other techniques. Additionally, he hinted at a few startups that are currently in stealth mode.
“I’m confident we have not seen the last entrant—or acquisition—for that matter.”
Image from Elena Resko