In the world of lab-mouse breeders, only a few players are in the big leagues. In recent years, a few mouse breeders have partnered with companies that create designer transgenic mice made to researchers' specifications: Charles River Laboratories in Wilmington, Mass., the world's largest mouse producer with more than $570 million in revenue from mouse sales, and Taconic, a company that started out of an ex-biochemists' barn.
Until last November, when a client wanted a custom-made mouse, both companies would license that work to a partner company: GenOway for Charles River, and Artemis for Taconic. But at the end of last year, Taconic acquired majority shares of Artemis and can now generate custom mice in-house. Taconic says the change will make it easier and faster for customers to get exactly what they need.
Custom-mouse generation is a huge area, says Nell Newton from Hoover's, a business information company. "As biopharmaceutical and biomedical research booms, so does the need for more complicated mice and mice models," she says. "The acquisition makes perfect sense." In a growing market, Taconic is growing by becoming more specialized. Taconic says it creates between 800 and 1000 new mouse lines per year, and it expects to grow from $105 million in sales in 2007 to $135 million in 2008.
For Artemis, being acquired by Taconic meant gaining financial support, as well as the huge breeding facilities that Artemis lacked. For Taconic, it meant offering their customers more than an off-the-shelf mouse. "It's not hard to understand" why the two companies are a great fit, says Stadler, cofounder of Artemis who became the new chief science officer at TaconicArtemis. Of all the companies that bid, says Stadler, "this was instinctively my favorite company."
Stadler says their competitive edge is the time it takes to create RNAi knockouts. "We can take 40 genes and in four months, knock them down" in 40 different mice, says Stadler. The technology will let scientists study entire pathways one protein at a time. Depending on the specifications, a TaconicArtemis mouse can cost from $40,000 to $100,000, says Sam Phelan, CEO of Taconic.
But if you build it, will they come? Seung Kwak, the director of target biology at CHDI Foundation, a nonprofit research organization that is developing treatments for Huntington disease, and a TaconicArtemis customer, says he hasn't noticed any difference in service yet. "But as a customer, I demand it," he says. He hopes that the days of trying to coordinate timing and shipment of Artemis' founder mouse to Taconic's breeding facilities are over. "It's a waste of my time," says Kwak.
Still, some researchers think the days of custom-mouse breeding are numbered. Yuejin Yu at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY, who creates his own mouse strains, says he thinks the demand for the service will decrease once the international project to knockout each of the mouse genes is complete. The project intends to create vectors, embryonic stem cell lines, and founder mice as a public resource. The goal is "to level the playing field" for researchers, says Allan Bradley, who works on the project at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. Services will cost approximately $60 for the vector, $500 for the embryonic stem cell lines, and $2,000 and more, depending on the services requested, for the founder mice.
But Bill Barbo, corporate vice president of research model services at Charles River, isn't too concerned. Broadening the access to transgenic technology, he notes, would only mean that there would be a greater demand for the kind of genotyping, phenotyping, and preclinical services that Charles River provides.