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New GE Healthcare Instrument Follows Industry Trend to Make Confocal Imaging More Accessible

SAN FRANCISCO — GE Healthcare has launched a new version of the IN Cell Analyzer 1000 and will discontinue the current version of the instrument as the company falls in line with an emerging trend to make confocal or confocal-like imaging technology more accessible to certain researchers in pharma and academia, GE officials said at the Cambridge Healthtech Institute High-Content Analysis meeting held here last week.

The new version of the IN Cell 1000 will contain optical Z-sectioning ability, which allows the lamp-based widefield microscope to achieve confocal-like imaging and therefore better image quality — a crucial component of high-content screening and analysis. GE's newest instrument will compete primarily with platforms sold by BD Biosciences and Cellomics, which is part of Fisher Scientific's Fisher Biosciences unit.

GE Healthcare is one of two companies that 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. The other is Molecular Devices, which launched a high-speed confocal imaging system last week (see BioCommerce Week 2/1/2006).

GE also competes with other BCW Index firms in the cell-analysis space — including Thermo Electron and PerkinElmer. German firm Evotec also offers a high-throughput confocal reader, but it doesn't market a lower-end lamp-based cellular analysis platform.

"Our system has not only the ability to do live-cell and fixed-cell assays, but you can also image a range of plate types, glass slides, and you can do transmitted light on the system. This last piece we've added further improves the versatility to improve confocal-like imaging."

GE Healthcare rival Molecular Devices has said it aims to sell the "fully loaded" version of its ImageXpress Ultra confocal imaging system for just under $500,000, while less equipped models — for example, those with fewer lasers — may sell for less. The firm said it has reduced the cost primarily by substituting solid-state lasers for the more expensive laser types typically found in confocal imagers.

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. According to various customers, the lower-end IN Cell 1000 costs approximately $450,000. Evotec has said that its Opera can cost as much as €700,000 ($855,000) for a fully equipped version.

GE's newest entry into the high-content analysis market is in line with a recent attempt by certain instrument vendors to make confocal or confocal-like imaging technology more accessible to academic researchers or pharmaceutical scientists who want to conduct more image-based assays, but whose budgets won't allow a high-end instrument that costs close to $1 million.

Other vendors have attempted to make confocal-like platforms without the use of lasers, but instead with clever optical tricks and image-processing algorithms. An example of this is BD Biosciences' Pathway HT, which it acquired along with Atto Bioscience. The Pathway HT features a module called CARV, which is essentially a spinning disc that helps eliminate all but the desired fluorescence signal, much like a true laser-based confocal does.

Cellomics was one of the earliest vendors to offer such technology: Its ArrayScan instrument is lamp-based but uses a module invented by Zeiss called the Apotome, which achieves confocality using a sliding grid to take three separate images of the same plane, and an image-processing algorithm to reconstruct the image.

The new IN Cell 1000 uses optical grid technology closely related to the Apotome. According to Anne Jones, director of marketing for cellular sciences and lead discovery in GE Healthcare's Discovery Systems division, the technology is licensed from imaging company Improvision, which also sells the technology to researchers wishing to add confocal-like ability to standard laboratory widefield microscopes.

The new system is designed to "play in similar markets" as the BD Pathway HT and Cellomics ArrayScan, Jones said.

"These are designed to be versatile and used for things like assay development, lead profiling, and other similar applications," she said. "But we are also very much focused on making it as modular and versatile as possible. Our system has not only the ability to do live-cell and fixed-cell assays, but you can also image a range of plate types, glass slides, and you can do transmitted light on the system. This last piece we've added further improves the versatility to improve confocal-like imaging."

Despite the confocal-like abilities of the IN Cell 1000, it still serves a very different market segment than the 3000.

"The IN Cell 3000 is a true confocal laser-based system, so … it's much more sensitive, it's faster, and designed for high-throughput and high-content cellular screening," Jones said. "It plays at a different price point and space in terms of market segmentation — more in the space of the Evotec Opera, for example.

"The market is segmented, and we feel that we have to accommodate both segments," she added. "One [segment] wants the very versatile system, which may be lower throughput, but wants flexibility in both hardware and software; and one wants the high-end, fast, sensitive instrument that will allow them to do screening."

If Jones' words sound familiar, it's because Mike Sjaastad, Molecular Devices' director of imaging, expressed nearly the same sentiment last week when talking about Molecular Devices' new high-end confocal reader, which was designed to complement its lower-end lamp-based systems used for assay development and secondary screening.

And in fact, much of the market seems to be turning that way. Several speakers at the conference discussed how their labs often have two types of instruments — a high-end confocal for true compound library screening, and a lower-end lamp-based system to develop and validate the assays that will eventually be run in high throughput on the confocal systems.

For example, Jonathan Lee, research advisor in the lead generation and optimization biology department at Eli Lilly, said that his lab uses three Cellomics ArrayScans and five TTP Labtech Acumen Explorers. The ArrayScans are used primarily for assay development work, while the Acumen Explorer — though not a confocal system — is a laser-based scanning cytometer that is capable of the type of throughput desired in a compound screening campaign.

GE Healthcare's Jones told BioCommerce Week sister publication Cell-Based Assay News that the new module will not significantly drive up the cost of the IN Cell 1000.

"The pricing of the IN Cell 1000 is highly competitive with other lamp-based systems on the market," she said. "It is designed to be a modular system, so depending on which elements you purchase, there will be a range of prices. It is very much competitively priced with other lamp-based systems, but it not in the same price range as laser-based systems like the [IN Cell] 3000," the Evotec Opera, or Molecular Devices' ImageXpress Ultra, Jones said.

In addition, even though GE Healthcare is discontinuing production of the "old" IN Cell 1000, it plans to continue to support these customers. Furthermore, Jones said, the optical Z-sectioning module can be retrofitted to the old instruments.

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

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

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