Lending further weight to its intellectual property portfolio, Cellomics announced last week that Becton Dickinson, via its BD Biosciences arm, has licensed Cellomics’ core patents for high-content screening methods.
According to a statement, the agreement provides BD with access to a patent portfolio that includes broad claims to HCS technology, as well as to specific classes of HCS assays such as cytoplasm-nuclear translocation, cellular toxicity characterization, and receptor internalization.
“It comes down to the specific claims that have been allowed, and how those claims read on what its customers or the company are actually practicing,” William Sharp, Cellomics’ vice-president of business development, told Inside Bioassays last week at a meeting at Cellomics’ offices. “So this conveys rights, in this case, to BD, to market and sell their instrument and associated reagents for high-content screening applications. And through the license to the intellectual property, those rights are conveyed to [their] customer[s].”
The licensing agreement further solidifies BD’s foray into high-content screening, an area that it signaled it would be entering in July, when it acquired Atto Bioscience, and with it the Pathway HT, a confocal-based plate reader designed to conduct high-throughput image-based analysis of living cells (see Inside BioAssays 7/6/2004).
“It’s really to allow us to have the freedom to operate, and our customers to have the peace of mind to move forward with systems from BD to perform high-content analysis,” Mark Lewis, vice president of BD Biosciences, said.
“I’m not sure what it’s going to allow [Pathway HT] customers to do that is different from what they did before,” he added. “It’s really a matter of us … having the ability to move forward. We’ve made a significant investment in the Atto acquisition, and this is really to augment that and remove any sorts of issues related to intellectual property, and it’s part of a continuing strategy to invest in this area.”
From Cellomics’ perspective, the agreement goes a long way toward supporting the idea that if other companies intend to implement high-content screening — as Cellomics defines it — they may be forced to pay Cellomics for the right.
Exactly what the term “high-content screening” encompasses is still a bit nebulous. Cellomics is widely credited with inventing the concept several years ago, and in general, it is the practice of extracting multiple points of data from images of cells for the purpose of conducting drug discovery assays or functional genomics. It is highly possible that customers performing such research on an instrument platform other than Cellomics’ had been in violation of its IP.
“It comes down to, ‘Does what they’re doing read on the claims in the patents?’” Sharpe said. “In this case, their legal team analyzed our IP portfolio, and looked at what they actually do, and determined that yes, in fact, they are.” Lewis simply characterized the situation as BD’s lawyers having analyzed the IP portfolio and deciding that licensing “was the appropriate thing to do.”
And HCS is rapidly heating up, as several publicly traded companies have either developed their own image-based screening instruments, or acquired them from other sources. And those companies are coming to realize that Cellomics maintains a rather enviable position in this nascent field.
To wit, this is the second licensing deal Cellomics has agreed to for its IP portfolio. In June, the company forged a similar agreement with GE, which allows customers using GE Healthcare’s IN Cell Analyzer screening instruments to perform high-content analysis and screening (see Inside Bioassays 6/29/2004). That agreement was almost immediately followed by another that would see Cellomics design an interface to the IN Cell Analyzer for its HCS analysis and data mining software, and data storage capabilities.
BD Biosciences, meanwhile, has not signed such an agreement with Cellomics, instead choosing to rely on its own software capabilities for high-content screening.
“We have AttoVision software, which is basically the operating system, and has analytical capabilities,” Lewis said. “So we have our own software packages that allow us to do this kind of analysis.”
“Remember that with BD … the acquisition of Atto was just in July,” Sharpe said. “So from BD’s perspective, I’m sure they’re dealing with integration issues, and just trying to get their arms around the acquisition and the technology, and how they employ that within their broad offering of products in the marketplace.”
“Certainly, enhancing the product through software and hardware development is a key to continue to move forward,” Lewis said. “Certainly any business is going to have ongoing development, and … it’s a necessity to really compete in the marketplace.
“We think this is a very large opportunity,” he added. “The big potential for us is that we’ve been in cellular analysis for over 20 years, and this is going to really allow us to leverage those capabilities and skills and the products that we have that support the other businesses.”
Although Sharpe declined to discuss specific financial terms of either the GE or BD deals, it is safe to say that the agreements are good news for Cellomics from a fiscal standpoint. As Inside Bioassays reported in July, the Pathway HT enjoyed $3 million in sales last year, and was on track to rack up double that amount this year. The IN Cell, formerly an Amersham product, is one of the most well-established image-based screening instruments on the market, with a worldwide customer base.
“Our major objective is to expand the market through the licensing of the IP to companies that can help drive — along with us — uptake in the market place,” Sharpe said.
Of course, while Cellomics is attempting to “expand the market,” it is also trying to sell its own full high-content screening platforms, from reagents to instruments to software and data storage. It is unclear how successfully Cellomics is competing in this area; however, it continues to move forward with new hardware and software, and initiatives such as its HCS 101 user training and Club HCS online resource (see related story in this issue, For Cellomics, Its HCS ‘Boot Camp’ May Have Benefited Customers. But Will It Spur Sales?). Sharpe admits that it is a tricky balance to strike.
“We have to look at the relative merits of our capabilities, competencies, and what we offer commercially, and weigh that against the marketplace and the needs of the customer to strike a commercial, as well as a strategic balance,” Sharpe said.
“Certainly one of our strong points is our informatics and our software,” added Judy Masucci, Cellomics’ director of marketing. “And so it was a very strategic decision for us to make an interface to GE’s instruments, as part of the second agreement we did with them, to enable our strongest portfolio on somebody else’s instrument. The reasoning behind that is that it’s what customers want.”