Investors at the UBS Global Life Sciences Conference this week peppered executives from at least two companies, PerkinElmer and Agilent Technologies, about their respective corporate interest in molecular imaging, a technology that is just in the conceptual stage.
Molecular imaging is the application of technologies such as MRI and PET scans to get a higher-resolution image of biological processes at the sub-cellular or molecular level. Some see this as a natural broadening of the molecular biology toolkit of DNA sequencers, DNA microarrays, and mass spectrometers, and an aspirational technology for integration into efforts to create a global view of biomolecular processes.
Some even see it a key driver behind General Electric’s $10 billion acquisition of Amersham, linking its product line with Amersham’s reagents. And high-end medical researchers are starting to test this instrument platform’s power. Last week, the University of Illinois at Chicago held a ribbon-cutting to open a new research center with a massive 9.4-tesla magnet-powered MRI scanner built by GE Healthcare, the business unit that integrated Amersham and the legacy GE Medical unit (see BCW, 9/23/2004). The center is applying the instrument to neurological research in the areas of stroke, Alzheimer’s, autism, and mental illness based on the ability to detect signals from molecular elements like sodium, phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, which are important in metabolic processes.
Taia Ergueta, senior director of business development for Agilent’s Life Sciences and Chemical Analysis unit, said that imaging, in the context of cell analysis and cell-based assays, is of interest to the company. She said it is something both her business development team and the Integrative Biology Solutions, led by Fran DiNuzzo (see BCW, 9/16/2004) are examining.
“We have imaging [capabilities] already, but that’s largely on the hospital equipment side,” she said in response to a question posed during a breakout session after her formal presentation. “We’re looking at [molecular imaging], but it’s still nascent.”
Greg Summe, the chairman and chief executive officer of PerkinElmer, also addressed a similar question in his breakout session.
“Increasingly, people want to look at the cellular level because it gives you a better sense of the system dynamics instead of picking off a gene or a protein,” he said.
“We look at cellular-level imaging converging at some point in time and a big opportunity — down the road,” Summe told BioCommerce Week.
Summe said today’s imaging technology can look at a bone in the body, but molecular imaging might eventually pinpoint the presence of plaque in the brain as an early sign of Alzheimer’s.
“A lot of technology advances in the biological sciences are really being enabled by electronics technology - the computing, the communication, and increasingly, the imaging capability is really helping to make practical the advances in biological science,” he said during his presentation.
For PerkinElmer, this convergence of technologies plays into two of its business units — the health sciences, which brought in $1.6 billion — 75 percent of the company’s revenue — in 2003, and its optical electronics unit, which recorded $400 million in revenue in 2003, part of which is accounted for under the health sciences unit.
The company has an exclusive relationship with the GE Medical Systems unit for diagnostic applications of imaging technology, and a non-exclusive relationship for therapeutics, Summe said. PerkinElmer provides flat-panel, X-ray digital detection models for use in imaging applications. Summe described the PE components for the deal as a semiconductor-like panel (amorphous silicon X-ray panels), surrounded by electronics, which provides the detector, which is then integrated into the product.
The digital imaging product line was initiated in the early 1990s, and first commercialized in early 1999. These products contributed $65 million to PE’s top line in 2003 and the companies have redrawn their collaboration to extend an additional five years, with a minimum of $250 million for PerkinElmer.
“It’s early days in a multi-decade revolution,” said Summe.”Nothing is going to change abruptly until the first application is successful.”
The 10,000-employee company has a “significant” team working on molecular imaging and supporting the GE collaboration, said Daniel Sutherby, PerkinElmer vice president for investor relations.