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Beckman Coulter Nabs Two Academic Customers for Imaging Cytometer; Will Pharma Follow?

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Beckman Coulter announced earlier this month that it has begun shipping its CellLab IC 100 image cytometer, the company’s first entry into the growing high-content imaging market.

Beckman Coulter did not indicate how many customers it was shipping to or their identities. However, Inside Bioassays has learned that two academic laboratories — the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and the new Scripps Research Institute branch, temporarily located on the Florida Atlantic University campus in Jupiter — have installed IC 100s.

The Burnham Institute recently won a $420,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to help buy robotics to better automate the IC 100 for “unattended operation,” according to the grant abstract.

“The sole accessory requested is a robotic arm and incubator to permit the automatic loading of multi-well cell culture plates onto the microscope,” the proposal abstract states. “The user base is large and diverse, representing the Burnham Institute, Salk Institute, and University of California, San Diego.”

The abstract goes on to describe several projects from users that represent “disease-oriented research in cardiology, diabetes, cancer, and infectious disease. The [high-throughput] microscope will be managed as part of a shared facility for cell analysis that also includes a high-speed cell sorter and analytical cytometers. This facility and [high-throughput] microscopy is a key part of a larger initiative to screen libraries of small molecules, proteins, and genes for applications in cancer, infectious disease, and regenerative medicine,” the abstract states.

Mark Mercola, a professor in the stem cell and regeneration program at Burnham, is the principal investigator listed on the grant. Calls to Mercola seeking comment regarding the use of the IC 100 were not returned in time for this publication.

However, the Burnham Institute installation comes as little surprise, one of Mercola’s colleagues in the stem cell and regeneration program is Jeff Price, who essentially developed the IC 100’s predecessor — the Q3DM Eidaq 100 — and who still maintains a consultancy relationship with Beckman Coulter. Price also recently launched a new company, Vala Science, which aims to develop cross-platform analysis software for image-based cellular assays (see Inside Bioassays, 2/22/2005).

The Scripps Research Institute, meanwhile, has purchased an IC 100, also for use in a core laboratory at its temporary Jupiter, Fla., home. Josephine Harada, a staff scientist in the cell-based screening division, said that she was familiar with the Q3DM instrument from her time spent at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation in San Diego.

Harada told Inside Bioassays that Scripps will be using the IC 100 as part of a core facility that offers collections of arrays of cDNA and siRNA for high-throughput cellular pathway research. The IC 100, she said, will be used to conduct high-content image-based readouts of processes such as NFkB translocation and G-protein coupled receptor internalization.

“I first started working with the instrument maybe two-and-a-half years ago, when it was still the Q3DM instrument,” Harada said. “It’s been interesting for me to see the evolution to something that’s distributed by a leader in lab instrumentation like Beckman Coulter — the things that they’ve had to do to polish it, and to make it more available to the average academic investigator, the average consumer.

“It’s definitely a much more mature product now,” Harada added. “The software’s more intuitive. The reason I decided to go with the IC 100 again was partly that … it was a difficult process learning how to use the instrument, and I don’t want to reinvest that energy into another system and another vendor.”

Harada indicated that software capabilities and cost were a big sticking point for the group. In particular, she said that based on discussions she’s had with colleagues, the IC 100 software is more interactive than several competing instruments on the market, which makes the process of assay development easier.

She was also directly involved in the evaluation of a competing instrument, Evotec’s Opera, while she was at the Novartis Research Foundation. She said that the Opera may actually be superior in the hardware department, but that the IC 100 strikes a better balance for Scripps’ particular needs.

“[The Opera] is a really nice instrument,” she said. “The hardware, depending on the assay, is maybe four to 10 times faster than the Beckman instrument. But it’s at a different price point, because it’s a laser-based system, and there are a lot of other differences.

“I would say that of the two, the Beckman software is much more user-friendly and much more mature than the Opera,” Harada added. “But the Opera is nice, and the fact that you can now do these assays — on a 1,536-well format — is amazing, considering where we started.”

Academic Versus Pharma

Although Beckman announced it was commencing shipments earlier this month, the company officially launched the IC 100 in February (see Inside Bioassays, 2/22/2005). Prior to that, it had made the IC 100 available to select beta-testers and advanced customers since last summer.

In December, Mark Cheetham, Beckman’s North American product manager for cytometry products, told Inside Bioassays that the company had “more orders for the instrument than [it had] in stock (see Inside Bioassays, 12/14/2004). Cheetham also said that although Beckman hoped to sell units to pharmaceutical and biotech customers, the largest amount of interest was coming from academic customers, mainly due to the IC 100’s relatively low list price: about $260,000 for a basic platform, he said.

Harada confirmed that Scripps actually paid slightly less than that — about $230,000 — for the instrument. She also lauded the company’s customer service thus far.

“We’re not quite up and running, so training on the instrument for other users is coming up later this month,” Harada said. “But Beckman’s been fantastic for us — they’re sending out their team from San Diego to do the training for us, so their service has been impeccable, I would say.

“Also, they’re willing to work with us — new algorithm development, for example, and probably some assay development services — so I think they’re including some not-so-tangible benefits with the instrument,” she added.

If Harada’s reluctance to switch to a new instrument platform is indicative of most users, it underscores how imperative it is for high-content screening instrument manufacturers to land brand-new customers, as opposed to trying to convert users of existing platforms — many of whom are at pharmaceutical companies.

Installations at high-profile academic research centers such as Burnham and Scripps seem to corroborate Beckman Coulter’s assertion that academia is interested. Now the company waits to see if big pharma will latch on.

— BB