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Molecular Imaging and Beyond: Philips Makes Moves to Challenge GE Healthcare, Siemens

Royal Philips Electronics has recently taken steps to participate in the molecular medicine space through alliances in the molecular imaging field and a bioinformatics initiative that would mark the firm's entry into the molecular diagnostics market.

With the help of German drug maker Schering, the medical imaging and equipment giant is taking aim at rivals GE Healthcare, Siemens, and Nikon Instruments, which are working on molecular imaging technologies, a potentially lucrative slice of the molecular diagnostics market. It also will face a pack of smaller players such as Naviscan PET Systems, ART Advanced Research Technologies, and Spectrum-Dynamics, which are all developing their own molecular imaging technologies.

What's at stake is not only a greater share of the traditional CT, PET and MRI markets, which employ these platforms to identify diseases, but also a potentially more lucrative market in tracking patient response to therapy and drug research. Earlier this year, a US Food and Drug Administration official said that the agency would like to see imaging technologies applied to the drug development process, remarks that encouraged imaging companies to take action.

Pushing Into Molecular Medicine

Philips announced this week that it would collaborate with Schering to develop contrast agents and optical imaging equipment aimed at preventing and treating breast cancer. While the initial stages of the alliance will employ an advanced mammography device developed by Philips, the partners said they intend to explore opportunities in molecular imaging, specifically looking at developing dyes that could target breast tumors at the molecular level.

"Philips is looking at the broader stroke of molecular medicine and developing expertise in both molecular diagnostics as well as in molecular imaging."

Unlike GE and Siemens, Philips does not make its own contrast agents, which makes alliances with firms such as Schering crucial to its plans for the molecular imaging market. GE gained a portfolio of imaging agents through its 2004 acquisition of Amersham, and Siemens purchased CTI Molecular Imaging earlier this year and relaunched its nuclear medicine group as Siemens Molecular Imaging.

The pact with Schering follows a February agreement with Eindhoven University of Technology, Maasricht University, and Maasricht Academic Hospital to create the Center for Molecular Medicine in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, to develop molecular imaging technologies.

But molecular imaging isn't Philips' only focus in the molecular medicine field. In mid-November, company researchers presented results from an early-stage bioinformatics project — a genetic algorithm for classifying microarray and proteomic data sets — at the IEEE Symposium on Computational Intelligence in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology in San Diego.

"We're on the verge of an explosion of new knowledge in molecular medicine, and that's likely to make a large impact on clinical practice, and being a major medical equipment company, we certainly have to be aware of this and be following the latest trends," Dave Schaffer, a Philips Research fellow who heads the bioinformatics effort, told BioCommerce Week sister publication BioInform last month (see BioCommerce Week 11/14/2005).

"Philips is looking at the broader stroke of molecular medicine and developing expertise in both molecular diagnostics as well as in molecular imaging," David Rollo, chief medical officer of Philips' nuclear medicine group, told BioCommerce Week earlier this year (see BioCommerce Week 6/30/2005).

He noted that Philips has a molecular medicine group employing roughly 100 people that are focused on molecular diagnostics. According to Rollo, the firm has been collaborating with academic institutions on biomarker development and expects that products from some of those collaborations would be further developed by Philips' cardiac monitoring services division.

He said that the firm would likely manufacture devices to analyze biomarkers and collaborate with others who would make diagnostic kits. The molecular imaging products Philips sells would "cut across all of our current modalities — that includes nuclear medicine, PET and SPECT, ultrasound, MR, and CT," according to Rollo. "But we're also becoming more interested and excited by the potential of optical imaging, which we believe has the ability to also have molecular diagnostic agents that can be evaluated in areas like the breast and tissues that are close to the surface of the body."

Molecular Imaging Competitors

As Philips targets the nascent field of molecular imaging, it will face stiff competition from large competitors including GE Healthcare, Siemens, and Nikon — all current rivals in the medical imaging field.

GE has been working on molecular imaging products for several years. In addition to its purchase of Amersham, the firm launched its Discovery STE, a combination PET/CT molecular imaging system, earlier this year. It also recently hired Jean-Luc Vanderheyden as head of its molecular imaging business in Wisconsin, and gave him the task of designing and developing of the unit's strategy with a focus on alliances and integrating offerings.

Last week, GE also announced a collaboration with researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, and the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3) aimed at developing new imaging technologies that would eventually be used in tailoring treatment for cancer patients.

Siemens has been working on molecular imaging technologies as part of a broader "patient-centric" approach. The firm also is considering a tie-in between its in vivo imaging products and in vitro diagnostics, though it currently does not offer any in vitro diagnostic products (see BioCommerce Week 6/30/2005).

The firm has been very active over the past few years in building a presence in the molecular biology field, starting with a collaboration signed in 2001 with German firm november to develop a DNA-based electrochemical diagnostic system. Since then, it has partnered with Biomax Informatics on gene-expression modeling and simulation, and last fall the firm announced a collaboration with the genotyping and gene-expression tool vendor Sequenom to develop molecular diagnostic platforms based on Sequenom's MassArray technology.

Siemens also purchased the biochip technology division of Infineon — a German semiconductor firm that is itself a spin off of Siemens — earlier this year, furthering its patent estate and development activities in the molecular diagnostics field. Mohammad Naraghi, senior vice president of business development at Siemens Medical Solutions, told BioCommerce Week sister publication BioArray News that the firm has "had activities to develop biochips for a couple of years now" (see BAN 06/15/2005).

Infineon's chip technology is incorporated into Siemens' Quicklab, a handheld diagnostics device that runs DNA- or protein-based experiments on a smart card. The system has not been commercially launched yet, but it is clearly a part of Siemens' strategy to play a greater role in the molecular biology field.

Meanwhile, Nikon announced this week that it would work with UCSF and QB3 to establish a microscopy imaging core facility at UCSF's Mission Bay Campus Center for Advanced Technology. The facility would house Nikon instruments capable of molecular imaging, the firm said. Nikon has three other such facilities at Harvard University, the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and Hokkaido University in Japan.

These and other companies received an invitation of sorts from the US Food and Drug Administration earlier this year to pick up the pace at which they develop molecular imaging technologies.

"We lack a mechanism for rapidly — or even slowly — tracing the response of cancer patients [to potential therapies] in clinical trials," Janet Woodcock, acting deputy commissioner for operations at the FDA, said in April at the Molecular Medicine Tri-Conference in San Francisco (see BioCommerce Week 4/28/2005). "We want to see imaging technologies put to use here" to gauge such endpoints as tumor size reduction.

Imaging technologies are also part of the FDA's Critical Path initiative, a document issued last March that highlights the FDA's belief that medical product development has fallen behind advances in basic sciences.

"New imaging technologies will ultimately contribute important biomarkers and surrogate end points, but how soon these new tools will be available for use will depend on the effort invested in developing them specifically for this purpose," the FDA said in the document.

— Edward Winnick ([email protected])

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