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As High-Content Screening Gains Traction, Cellomics Launches Center of Excellence to Stay on Top

This article is the first in a series of bi-weekly columns focusing on the area of "high-throughput biology, or new techniques for high-volume cell based screening and imaging that biopharma is using to validate targets generated through genomics or proteomics, screen for toxicity, and replace other traditional assays.


NEW YORK, Dec. 5 (GenomeWeb News) - Cellomics is moving to secure the leadership position in the growing field of 'high-content" or "high-throughput cellular assays by opening a center of excellence for high-content screening at its Pittsburgh headquarters. The center, which the company announced Dec. 3, is to offer "education, training and development initiatives," according to the company's CEO, Dan Calvo.


Included in these initiatives will be HCS101, the four-day course the company introduced earlier this year. "This is HCS boot camp," said Joe Zock, Cellomics' senior director of HTS user services. Users "come in and they learn every facet of what it takes to do this ... how to look at the software, how to look at the cell, and other technology that they may work with."


With the center of excellence, Cellomics will add to its course offerings and do web-based training as well.  Part of the training will involve the company's new product offerings for 2004, which include informatics that combines Cellomics' internal software with Spotfire's Decisionsite-to be launched in the first quarter--and a hierarchical storage module the company is launching with another partner, EMC.  The high-content assays generate "multiple terabytes" of data, said Mark Collins, the senior production manager for informatics at Cellomics, and this partnership with EMC will give the company "the ability to hierarchically manage [this] large volume of data."


This new push for training comes as Cellomics anticipates the field to go into a big growth phase in 2004. One of the things "we expect to happen next year is that high content screening, high-throughput microscopy, and high throughput cellular analysis will move from a very early adopter oriented phase to a more accepted phase," said Martin Pietila, the product manager for the company's ArrayScan technology.


Cellomics is not alone in this bullish outlook for high-content screening. A new report released by research firm Front Line Strategic Consulting, of San Mateo, Calif., estimated the cellular assays market to grow to $700 million by 2009. The report cited as factors key to the growth of this market "the expanded use of high content screening in drug discovery," as well as consolidation of the sector and increased use of primary cells in research.


The crux of this technology area is the transformation of manual, single-plex cell assays into parallelized, automated assays-the high-throughput aspect-and the engineering of assays to allow users to interrogate living cells to study numerous biomolecular interactions simultaneously.


This switch to high-throughput biology comes just as pharma drug discovery researchers makes a theoretical transition from genomics and proteomics to systems biology. As the researchers researchers seek to link genes and proteins with pathways in cells, Cellomis and other companies offering what they call 'high-content" or "high-throughput cellular assays are trying to ride this 'systems biology' wave.


"Systems biology is absolutely about understanding how cells work, or how genes work and proteins work in the context of the cell," said Collins. " When we invented high-content screening it bought a number advantages. One was the ability to .. take those cells and image them and automate that and automate the analysis to generate relevant biological data.


Cellomics technology combines fluorescence-based reagents, cell lines, and multi-parametric assays, with both fixed end-point and kinetic instrumentation, and informatics tools.


Collins said the company's technology is to traditional cell-based assays what capillary sequencers are to slab gels. "What we do is we sequence the cell," he said.


Cellomics, which is privately-held, has been plying its technology to pharma and biotech since it was founded in 1996, but more recently decided to hone in on high-content screening (which, as Collins said, it claims to have invented). The company has developed assays in areas such as chemical genomics and in vitro toxicity.


The company has seen the sector gain traction recently, said Judy Masucci, the company's director of marketing, with "the insurgence of a number of competitors into this field." 


While Cellomics did not want to name all the names of competitors, some of the companies to enter this high-content assay and imaging field include Akceli, of Cambridge, Mass., BioSeek, of Burlingame, Calif., Discovery Partners International, of San Diego, Molecular Devices, of Sunnyvale, Calif., Q3DM of San Diego, and the Zymark division of Caliper technologies. Amersham Biosciences also has offerings in the high-throughput cellular assay arena.


Masucci also cited as evidence of the spread of the field the new meetings on high-content assays being organized by IBC and Cambridge HealthTech. The CHI meeting, High-Content Analysis, is being held on January 29-30 in San Francisco, and is being sponsored partly by Cellomics, which is holding a users' group meeting the day before.



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