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GE Healthcare Believes It Has 'Game-Changer' for Cell Analysis Market

By Tony Fong

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – With its planned purchase of Applied Precision, GE Healthcare expects to enter into a new and fast-growing segment of the cellular imaging space with technology that a GE official called a "game-changer."

GE announced its plan to buy high and super-resolution microscopy firm Applied Precision two weeks ago for an undisclosed amount. Last week, Amr Abid, general manager of Cell Technologies for GE Healthcare, told GenomeWeb Daily News that the deal would provide his company with a technology that has taken hold of the cell analysis research market only recently but is poised to see 20 percent to 25 percent growth annually in coming years.

Based in Issaquah, Wash., Applied Precision develops and markets high- and super-resolution microscopy instruments, technologies that, Abid said, open up new scientific insights because it allows researchers to investigate cellular processes at a scale not achievable with other types of microscopes.

A normal microscope has a resolution which allows researchers to see things at a size of 200 nanometers and above. So for insulin, for example, which is about 10 nm in size, "a normal microscope would not be able to see the insulin in the cell," while with a super-resolution microscope, a researcher would be able to do so Abid said.

Electron microscopes have similar resolution to a super-resolution microscope, but they don't allow researchers to observe cells in vivo, as can be done with super-resolution microscopy.

"So you can understand … the impact of having a high- or super-resolution microscope to be able to understand deeply what the cell is doing," he said. By being able to explore cellular functions at such a level, researchers can now gain a deeper understanding of "the mechanisms that are inherent in a dysfunctional cell."

As an example, he cited studies using super-resolution microscopes to determine how the HIV virus penetrates cells could provide information used to develop new drugs.

"If we didn't have the super-resolution microscope, we would not understand that mechanism," he said. For GE, the instruments will be "platform[s] for us for the future," that will shape "cellular analysis because we believe that it's something that is important for tomorrow's discoveries."

Though super-resolution microscopy has been around as an idea since the 1980s, the technology didn't really begin to seep its way into research laboratories until a decade ago. When Nature magazine named it the technology of the year in 2008, the technology took off.

By some estimates, the total microscopy market today is between $2 billion and $3 billion. Of that, super-resolution microscopes make up about 20 percent, Abid said. Applied Precision and Leica, a Danaher business, are the market leaders in terms of the hardware, each with a market share of approximately 30 percent to 35 percent, he added.

GE currently does not offer super-resolution microscopes and had not been developing them. Its purchase of Applied Precision was enabled by a relationship it had built up with the company through co-development collaborations around GE's IN Cell high-content analysis system.

The acquisition also builds on GE's purchase of Clarient, a molecular diagnostics and imaging firm for, $580 million last year. According to Abid, as GE waits to close on the Applied Precision deal, it is exploring ways in which Applied Precision and Clarient's technologies could complement each other, though he said it was still early days for such consideration.

GE also will be exploring ways to bundle its existing cell research technologies with Applied Precision's instruments.

"That's part of the added value that we're going to put together," Abid said, "and basically what we're going to deliver is going to be much more powerful that will really answer the fundamental questions of today," such as why certain drugs fail.

Abid declined to elaborate on those plans, but GE's flagship product in cellular imaging is its IN Cell platform, which originally launched in 2009. In March, the latest iteration of the instrument, the IN Cell 6000, was rolled out.

GE also has a deal with biopharmaceutical firm Geron to develop cellular assay products derived from human embryonic stem cells for use in drug discovery, development, and toxicity screening. Last October, GE launched the first products from the alliance, Cytiva cardiomyocytes for predictive toxicity testing.

Because Applied Precision is well-recognized in the high- and super-resolution microscopy field, GE plans to retain its name, Abid said. The company also plans to keep all 130 of Applied Precision's employees and to invest in its technology, he added.

GE will also increase efforts to raise Applied Precision's profile in markets such as China, India, and Japan, where super-resolution microscopy is a growth segment but where Applied Precision currently has only a limited presence, he said.

GE expects to close the acquisition of Applied Precision, which generated around $37 million in revenues in 2010, during the current quarter.

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