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Aiming to Grow Its Drug-Screening Services Unit, Invitrogen to Launch New Kinase-Screening Platform

Invitrogen plans to launch a new drug-screening platform early in the second quarter as a key part of its strategy to build its nascent screening-services business, company officials told BioCommerce Week.

The SelectScreen Profiling and Screening Services platform was initially launched in 2004 and builds off of the firm's kinase-screening business. The new platform — enabled by SSi Robotics' automation technology — will enable Invitrogen researchers to perform assays more quickly at higher throughput, the officials said.

Through an agreement reached last month, SSi is designing and building an automated system that integrates Invitrogen's target-class content and bioassay technologies.

"SSi is helping us expand our throughput and our efficiencies in the service," said Tammy Turek-Etienne, HTS manager of Invitrogen's SelectScreen Services. The company's technology will enable a "fully integrated compound-management system," she said. "Their robotics will enable us to not only cherry pick out customers' compounds that we might have to do follow-ups on, but it also will allow us to do all of the compound prepping to begin the initial screens."

SSi is "enabling us to walk away and do other parts of our service that are required to get the job done," she told BioCommerce Week. "It's the gain in efficiency that we get by going to automation and having a robust [system] that we're confident in" and that can meet the turnaround time of two weeks for screening, said Turek-Etienne.

"Going forward, we have the ability to use all of the technologies and capabilities across Invitrogen and bring them to bear in terms of building out biology on the SelectScreen platform."

Automating the compound selection and preparation "allows to focus on how we can drive efficiency in the second part of the programs, which is really the biological screening element," said Chris Armstrong, director of customer programs for Invitrogen's Drug Discovery Solutions business, which includes the screening services.

In addition to building content for the platform, Invitrogen has been developing screening assays in a variety of fluorescent modes, Armstrong said. The service now offers pharmaceutical customers the ability to screen their lead compounds against 193 kinases in less than two weeks.

"What we wanted to do was build the fastest possible turnaround time to support" kinase-screening activities, "while maintaining the highest level of data integrity," said Armstrong.

Turek-Etienne said she believes a key selling point is the "confidence that we can do the expected screens in the turnaround time they want them completed in." She also noted that customers can come to the site where the services are performed and see how the SelectScreen platform works, which she thinks will give clients confidence in the robustness of the automated platform and the data quality.

Armstrong acknowledged that there are a number of other firms offering drug-screening services across a variety of target classes and biological assays, and some of these firms look to partner around chemistry and lead-discovery programs, which is not something that Invitrogen is pursuing "at this stage." But, Armstrong doesn't believe that competitors support the kinases internally, and he said they "don't have the breadth and speed of capability" that Invitrogen has.

According to Armstrong, the SelectScreen services are sold by a combination of specialists and generalists within the company. "We have a global drug discovery specialist group, and they work very closely with the generalist account managers within the industrial sector globally," he said.

The new SelectScreen platform will be validated internally by April, said Turek-Etienne, with plans for a commercial launch that month.

Starting with Kinases, But More Targets on the Horizon

Invitrogen is initially concentrating on kinase screening — a relatively small market that Armstrong said was about $25 million in 2004, but may have grown by as much as 50 percent in 2005. "The kinase field … is the second-most targeted drug class out there after GPCRs, and there's a massive amount of interest in developing kinase inhibitors for the treatment of a variety of disease states, particularly around oncology," said Armstrong.

However, the firm believes the payoff will come as it adds more target areas, and then moves into pathway biology, said Armstrong.

The platform could eventually employ the cell-screening capabilities Invitrogen gained when it acquired Quantum Dot last year (see BioCommerce Week 10/13/2005). "Going forward, we have the ability to use all of the technologies and capabilities across Invitrogen and bring them to bear in terms of building out biology on the SelectScreen platform," Armstrong said.

He added that the company will also be expanding the SelectScreen capability into Europe, with the establishment of a screening center there, though he didn't say when Invitrogen expects to follow through on those plans.

The screening-services business is likely to grow significantly within Invitrogen over the coming years, Armstrong said. "These sorts of investments in our current capabilities in screening … will drive this," he said.

Specific sales figures and growth targets for Invitrogen's screening-services business were not immediately available. The company is scheduled to report its fourth-quarter 2005 revenues on Feb. 28.

"One of the key areas for us is to use this quantitative biology platform, which is what we're calling it, across different target classes and making reagents that people can simply buy, building assays that can help support their own internal screening efforts, or providing assay development and screening capabilities where they might want to outsource some of that pipeline," Armstrong said.

— Edward Winnick ([email protected])

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