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... As Molecular Devices Takes Aim at GE, Evotec with High-End HCS Instrument

Molecular Devices this week launched a new benchtop high-speed confocal imaging system that is expected to directly compete with similar high-throughput products offered by GE Healthcare and Evotec Technologies.

The company unveiled the new system, called ImageXpress Ultra, at Cambridge Healthtech Institute's High-Content Analysis conference in San Francisco. Combined with its current cell-screening products, the new system will enable Molecular Devices to compete with both high-throughput imagers and the lower-end imagers used primarily for assay development.

Molecular Devices, however, thinks it can undercut GE and Evotec with "higher performance at a lower price," said Mike Sjaastad, Molecular Devices' director of marketing for imaging products, in an interview late last week.

If the product is successful, some industry experts feel it could also expand the market for high-throughput confocal imaging systems by putting the instruments within the reach of academic researchers who previously could not afford them, and enticing pharmaceutical researchers who otherwise are reluctant to spend the money.

"Historically, the people that purchase high-end confocal [systems] are really interested in high-throughput imaging, or they're interested in assays that require the additional resolution of a confocal. But we feel that you have to provide both technologies if you want to be a true provider in this business."

The ImageXpress Ultra rounds out the stable of imaging products that grew out of Molecular Devices' 2002 acquisition of Universal Imaging and its MetaMorph image-analysis software, and its purchase two years later of Axon Instruments and its flagship microscopy platform, ImageXpress.

Molecular Devices last summer unveiled the first fruits of those transactions when it launched the ImageXpress Micro, a more compact version of its predecessor; MetaXpress image-analysis software; the MDCStore HCS database; and AcuityXpress informatics software.

Now, the company has remade ImageXpress into a higher-end, laser-based confocal system designed to complement the CCD camera-based ImageXpress Micro, and that can be integrated with the new image-analysis and informatics products.

"Historically, the people that purchase high-end confocal [systems] are really interested in high-throughput imaging, or they're interested in assays that require the additional resolution of a confocal," Sjaastad said. "But we feel that you have to provide both technologies if you want to be a true provider in this business. I think there are customers who can appreciate or need either technology, and we wanted to provide both."

In addition, Sjaastad said, ImageXpress Ultra "dovetails right into our software platform. This was designed from the ground up to operate within the same … [image] acquisition, analysis, and informatics environment" as ImageXpress Micro.

Scouting the Competition

While Molecular Devices competes with several other BCW Index firms in the cell-analysis space — including Fisher Scientific, Thermo Electron, PerkinElmer, and former BCW Index firm Becton Dickinson — its most direct competition on the imaging front is now GE Healthcare, which is the only other company to offer both a high-throughput true confocal screening system (the IN Cell 3000) and a more affordable, lower throughput, lamp-based system designed more for assay development (the IN Cell 1000). Evotec also offers a high-throughput confocal reader, but it doesn't market a lower-end lamp-based cellular analysis platform.

In addition, Molecular Devices could be facing competition in the high-end market from rival Cellomics, which inked a co-development and co-marketing deal with Evotec this week (see related article in this week's issue).

Some people may feel that the Cellomics ArrayScan VTI and BD Bioscience Pathway HT — both of which implement technology that enable confocal-like imaging without the use of lasers — can match much of the imaging enabled by confocal readers. But these instruments are still more appropriate for assay development and relatively low-throughput, high-content screens.

According to Ivan Baines, scientific coordinator and director of services and facilities at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, the Cellomics instrument can't compete on speed. "The benefit is that it is extremely robust and stable. All of the top-end [confocal] machines are much less stable, so it's a challenge to perform a single screen and get all the way through it, particularly if you're doing five, 10, or 20 confocal sections per well."

The only other instruments that may compete for high-throughput cell-based screening are laser scanning cytometers, such as those marketed by TTP Labtech and CompuCyte. While these instruments, both of which use lasers, may be competitive in terms of throughput, they don't produce true fluorescence images, which some researchers deem necessary for true high-content assays.

Of course, looking at things from the opposite perspective, higher-end confocal systems may still be used for assay development and small-scale screens — another selling point that Molecular Devices hopes to communicate.

"This instrument has a user-configurable pinhole, which determines the amount of light getting to the sensors, which can determine the speed, and the trade-off is resolution," Sjaastad said. "We can stop the pinhole down to research-grade confocal optics, which is an advantage, we think, over some of our competitors, and would allow the instrument to function as a research confocal."

The Price is Right?

According to Sjaastad, Molecular Devices aims to sell the "fully loaded" version of ImageXpress Ultra for just under $500,000, while less equipped models — for example, those with fewer lasers — may sell for less. This price is a significant departure from current comparable systems, which fully loaded can push $1 million. GE Healthcare does not disclose pricing for the IN Cell 3000; however, according to various customers, the lower-end IN Cell 1000 itself costs approximately $450,000. Evotec has said that its Opera can cost as much as €700,000 ($855,000) for a fully equipped version.

"That's actually very significant," Max Planck's Baines said. "The difference between $1 million and under $500K is literally the difference between managing to purchase it and not for most academic institutes.

"More or less, every research institute now has some cell-based screening activity," Baines added. "So far, the only reason that every lab doesn't have one is the cost. So that will be very, very welcome in the academic sector."

As far as Molecular Devices' better performance claim goes, Sjaastad believes its instrument employs a superior method for achieving confocality.

"We're a point scanning confocal; the Opera is a spinning disc; and the IN Cell 3000 is a line scanner," he said. "There are inherent advantages in point scanning … in terms of image quality and resolution, but historically, building that technology to go fast enough for screening has proven difficult. But that's what we feel we have done here — we've brought the highest resolution version of confocal into the high-throughput realm."

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

(Ed. — A version of this article also appears this week in BioCommerce Week's sister publication, Cell-Based Assay News )

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