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ABI, Sensing Growing Market, Nurtures Its Cell-Assay Technology With R&D, Incubator


It is safe to say that when one thinks of Applied Biosystems, cell-based assays, cellular imaging, and high-content screening do not immediately come to mind. It's the mass spec, sequencing, and SNP-analysis markets in which the Applera unit plays more actively.

ABI does, however, have a few technologies for cellular analysis that, while not contributing much to its top line, are viewed as important future areas. The company brought this into sharp focus last year when it created a technology incubator to improve and commercialize future product offerings, including tools for this area.

In addition, ABI said it has "a lot of interest" in expanding its cellular-analysis offerings from a relatively small technology incubator to a full-fledged division, though there is no set time frame for such a transition, Anthony Chiulli, a product manager in ABI's cell biology division, recently told CBA News.

According to Chiulli, ABI formed the cell biology incubator about a year-and-a-half ago, right around the time the company restructured to form four distinct divisions: molecular biology; PSM (proteomics and small molecules); applied markets; and service.

The research group in which ABI's cellular assay team resides is "an incubator … the little pinky, if you will. So we're a very small group in comparison with the others. We have difficulty getting recognized even within ABI, never mind in the industry itself."

"We're an incubator, so we're the fifth group, the little pinky, if you will," Chiulli said. "So we're a very small group in comparison with the others. We have difficulty getting recognized even within AB, never mind in the industry itself."

ABI has two major technologies for high-throughput cell biology, for which Chiulli is product manager: the Tropix line of reagents for reporter gene analysis, cAMP analysis, western blotting, and nucleic acid analysis; and the 8200 Cellular Detection platform.

According to Chiulli, Tropix is a chemiluminescent reagent line that has many applications — such as reporter gene analysis, Western blotting, and nucleic acid analysis — but finds use in cell-based assays primarily for cAMP analysis for GPCR screening.

The 8200 Cellular Detection platform, as the name implies, is geared solely to cell-based assays — almost. In addition to enabling live- or fixed-cell endpoint assays, the instrument is also capable of bead-based assays.

"If I was to think of competitors for this system, if you look at the bead-based side, there are two obvious ones: BioVeris and Luminex," Chiulli said. Both of these companies' platforms have similar multiplexing capabilities to the 8200, he noted.

"On the cell side, they're not really competitors necessarily, but they are at the same price point and in the same type of markets," Chiulli said. "I consider [competitors to be] the Amersham IN Cell 1000 — not the 3000, because that's confocal and is too high-end — as well as instruments like the [TTP Labtech] Acumen, or even, for example, Cellomics."

Companies that sell instruments for similar prices to similar markets do sound like rivals. However, the instruments Chiulli referred to all take different paths to enable high-throughput cellular analysis, and may be complementary. But it does sound like the 8200 is most akin to a laser scanning cytometer.

The 8200 is equipped with two photomultiplier tubes and a red laser, and is capable of scanning 96-, 384-, or 1,536-well plates.

"You're scanning a 1-mm square at the bottom of the plate," Chiulli said. "The technology allows us to make all of our assays homogeneous, so there are no wash steps. We are imaging the bottom 100 microns of the plate. The cells and beads that you're doing the assay on are going to settle, so you let them incubate for a couple of hours, and they settle.

"It's a very easy system to use in terms of assay development," he added. "You just mix and read, incubate, go home if you want to, put the plates through, and when you come back in the morning, you get your data."

Chiulli declined to identify any current customers of the 8200 or break out sales figures for the instrument. But an AstraZeneca scientist who spoke at the recent Society for Biomolecular Sciences conference his company uses the technology for chemokine binding research.

"On the cell side … I consider [competitors to be] the Amersham IN Cell 1000 — not the 3000, because that's confocal and is too high-end — as well as instruments like the [TTP Labtech] Acumen, or even, for example, Cellomics."

Nurturing the Technology

As part of it restructuring, ABI formed an "advanced research and technology group" and, soon thereafter, the technology incubator division, whose goal is to attempt to bring the new technologies to market, GenomeWeb News, a CBA News sister publication reported last July.

And while the incubator group intends to explore a variety of new technology areas for ABI, it appears that the cellular-analysis space is first on the list — most likely because ABI already had the 8200 and Tropix technologies in-house for some time.

The predecessor to the 8200 Cellular Detection platform was called the FMAT, and was developed by Biometric Imaging, a company with which ABI partnered several years ago. Biometric Imaging was then purchased by Becton Dickinson, but, soon thereafter, ABI took the FMAT technology in-house and eventually modified it to make the 8200.

But while ABI has had the technology in its closet for several years, it wasn't until recently that the company decided to begin focusing more on marketing it — not coincidentally at the same time that cellular analysis started to become a watch-word in drug discovery again.

"I think the company was trying to find a niche for us," Chiulli said. "Two years ago, we were in the PSM division. We were more of a cash cow, just riding the wave, trying to figure out what we wanted to do. Once we got this incubator going, things changed, and we're trying to grow the business versus milk the business."

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

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