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GE Healthcare, Oxford to Study Feasibility Of Pairing In Vivo and In Vitro Technologies

GE Healthcare said last week it will embark on a broad collaboration with researchers at the University of Oxford to study the use of medical imaging and genomic profiling to improve the treatment of colorectal cancer.

The partnership, to which GE will contribute $3 million, might be the first of similar collaborations that the company could forge that focus on pairing in vitro and in vivo technologies for drug and diagnostic development, which was a key reason for GE's acquisition of Amersham in 2004.

The aim of the two-year collaboration, which is the first research initiative between Oxford and GE, is to develop a range of tools for, among other indications, disease staging, assessing response to therapy using imaging, and using gene signatures to select therapy and assess drug toxicity, according to a GE official.

"We expect to develop a very deep understanding of the clinical and biological nature of colon cancer — imaging, molecular diagnostics, and informatics," Jonathan Allis, vice president of technology and medical diagnostics at GE Healthcare in Amersham, UK, wrote to BioCommerce Week in an e-mail message.

"We believe that the future of healthcare is about integrated approaches to the early diagnosis of disease, and provision of maximum information from in vivo and in vitro tests, all integrated by clinical informatics software. To this end, we continue to seek out collaborations, be that with industry or academic institutions."

The project will have five main parts, headed by university investigators in different departments: improvements to colon cancer magnetic resonance imaging, data integration, RNA transcript profiling, pharmacogenomics for chemotherapy selection and prediction, and DNA sequencing applied to genomic pathology of colon cancer.

"We believe that the future of healthcare is about integrated approaches to the early diagnosis of disease, and provision of maximum information from in vivo (imaging) and in vitro (gene) tests, all integrated by clinical informatics software," Allis wrote in the e-mail. "To this end, we continue to seek out collaborations, be that with industry or academic institutions."

GE Healthcare has been working on molecular imaging products for several years, and earlier this year launched its Discovery STE, a combination PET/CT molecular imaging system. Along with the technologies it acquired through its purchase of Amersham — including imaging agents and the CodeLink microarray platform — GE Healthcare has the tools that could make it a natural competitor in a personalized healthcare market where molecular imaging and molecular diagnostic technologies work in concert.

In addition, GE's Global Research unit initiated a collaboration last year with Celera Genomics and Celera Diagnostics to discover and develop novel imaging agents for cancer that selectively target cell surface proteins Celera Genomics has found to be associated with malignancies. Under terms of that deal, GE will have exclusive access to certain selected protein targets for research and development of imaging agents.

Few companies have the capabilities to marry molecular imaging and molecular diagnostic technologies. But a possible competitor for GE Healthcare in this area is Siemens, the German imaging giant. Company officials told BioCommerce Week earlier this year that they are working on pushing their molecular imaging technology closer to pharmacogenomics and drug development and also are eyeing a potential tie-in between the in vivo imaging products and in vitro diagnostics (see BioCommerce Week 6/30/2005).

The Oxford Collaboration

According to a description in a recruitment ad for Oxford's Engineering Science Department, "The collaboration will develop and validate the imaging and genomic tools for colon cancer analysis and build a demonstrator of clinical data integration. The demonstrator will be evaluated within multiple [National Health Service] settings and may also be validated within other oncology settings."

Under the terms of the agreement, both the company and the university will have "opportunities" regarding intellectual property coming out of the relationship, Allis said. However, "it's too early a stage to speculate on the commercial opportunity of this collaboration."

According to David Kerr, a professor of clinical pharmacology and cancer therapeutics at Oxford and one of the principal investigators, GE Healthcare will provide $1.5 million per year in funding. The two-year agreement may be extended "if the project is successful, [if] it adds value to the understanding of colon cancer as anticipated," said Allis.

The study will involve 2,000 to 3,000 patients from across the UK, according to Kerr, and about 30 to 40 researchers from GE Healthcare and GE Global Research. Approximately 30 Oxford researchers will participate, according to John Bell, professor of medicine at Oxford.

The imaging and data integration projects are headed by Michael Brady, professor and head of the Engineering Science Department at Oxford. Imaging will be performed on MR and CT scanners from GE that are already based at Oxford.

Moreover, GE will "provide expertise in genomic and information technologies," and "a number of GE Healthcare platforms will be pertinent to this project," according to Allis, who declined to be more specific. Kerr, who is in charge of the RNA transcript profiling and participates in the pharmacogenomics project, said that one aim is to develop a diagnostic gene chip.

Rob Walton, a researcher in the department of clinical pharmacology at Oxford, heads the pharmacogenomics project, and Ian Tomlinson and Walter Bodmer, both investigators at Cancer Research UK, are in charge of the DNA sequencing project.

— Julia Karow ([email protected])

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