In today’s economic climate, there are plenty of horror stories of company failures and closures. But you do not have to go too far to find some good news in the bioscience community, at least to the door of Oxford Gene Technology, which has just acquired Sense Proteomic, to significantly boost its area of expertise.

OGT was one of the early spin-outs from Oxford University in 1995. Led by Professor Ed Southern — now Sir Ed Southern — the company pioneered the printing of DNA onto microchips to form what are called microarrays.

These arrays are used in research for DNA analysis to diagnose illnesses.

Chief executive Dr Mike Evans said: “The initial strategy was to licence our microarray technology and we now have more than 40 companies using it.

“Some manufacture the chips under licence, while some use them for commercial purposes. That has established us an income stream right from the start and funded the company and its growth.”

Dr Evans joined OGT in 2005, and since his arrival, the company has broadened its activity base into services and products.

OGT’s services now include either the design and manufacture of the chip and the whole experiment, or just design and manufacture. The chips have human chromosomes deposited on various parts of the chip.

This allows direct comparison between a healthy DNA and that of a patient suspected of having a disease, like cancer.

An increasing use of this technology is to check copy number variations. Everyone has 23 pairs of chromosomes in their DNA. Most parts of the DNA have two copies, but in five per cent of DNA, there may be more than two.

In Downs Syndrome, there are three copies. About four years ago, some links were found between the extra copies and certain syndromes. By comparing healthy and suspect DNA, OGT’s chips can rapidly analyse any such variations.

Dr Evans explained: “In two years, we’ve moved from 100 to 20,000 copy number samples. One recent job called for 20,000 samples to be analysed in 20 weeks.

“We had to move to round-the-clock shifts, even though we have invested in robots to speed up and automate the work.”

In terms of product, OGT currently sells a chip worldwide which holds 200 syndromes. Researchers can quickly establish if a patient exhibits the symptoms of any one of those syndromes.

A further advance is single cell analysis. A biopsy will examine a group of cells, but in a disease like cancer, it is one cell that mutates to form a tumour, or metastasise to form tumours elsewhere in the body.

Because cancer will change its structure as it develops, identifying the single cell is vital. Later this year, a kit for single cell analysis will be put on the market.

While the service business provides a good revenue stream, OGT’s next target is to develop biomarkers, molecular indicators of disease. One of their targets is prostate cancer.

The current standard test is called PSA, prostate-specific antigen, itself a biomarker. A high PSA count indicates that a patient has the cancer, but the test is well known for false positives and negatives. Surgery is unpleasant.

In the United States, about 250,000 prostatectomies are carried out annually on patients who have been wrongly diagnosed. So an accurate biomarker is essential.

Sense Proteomic, based in Maidenhead, researches such biomarkers using the OGT chip on proteins, not DNA. Proteins are chains of amino acids with a sequence determined by genes.

The technology looks at easily accessible proteins such as those in the bloodstream, avoiding often uncomfortable biopsies.

An auto-immune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, or lupus, a self-allergy, results in the immune system producing auto-antibodies to fight the complaint and attacks the body’s own proteins.

Worse still, the antibodies damage organs such as the liver or the nerves and this can be fatal.

The proteins are placed on the chips in folded or 3D format, mimicking their structure in the human body. As with the OGT system, the test is one of comparison with healthy against suspect. Proteins that are attacked fluoresce strongly to produce a biomarker, and the signals can be read and measured in a scanner.

Accurate, early diagnosis is vital. Treatment can begin sooner and damage-minimised. Current diagnosis of an auto-immune disease can take two years.

Rachel Fallon, chief executive of Sense, said: “We’re still at the early stages but we are aiming for highly accurate on-the-spot tests at surgeries and clinics. Currently, we’re focused on prostate and colorectal cancers.”

With good cash flow from day one, OGT has enjoyed rapid growth and is now making a profit of more than £1m to fund substantial future investment.

With nearly 60 staff at the two locations, new and bigger premises in Oxford will house both OGT and Sense, premises with capacity for yet more staff to support further expansion.

Clearly downturn is not a word in the OGT dictionary.