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As BMS Reveals CellCard Data, Vitra Says More Pharma Validations on Horizon

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The CellCard system, Vitra Bioscience’s flagship product for highly multiplexed cell-based assays, has hit the market.

One wouldn’t know it by visiting Vitra’s website — which doesn’t currently contain information about CellCard’s commercial availability — or by sifting through the company’s recent press releases. Earlier this year, Vitra raised $5.5 million in a second round of financing, cash that it said at the time was earmarked for bringing CellCard to market. However, at that time, Andrew Whitely, Vitra’s CEO, told Inside Bioassays that “it was too early to identify a specific date” for commercialization.

However, even though Vitra has been keeping a low profile for CellCard, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company is now poised to push the product into the drug-discovery marketplace. Last week, Whitely told Inside Bioassays that the CellCard system is now commercially available, and that Vitra has undertaken “evaluation-for-purchase” projects with as many as seven unidentified pharmaceutical companies.

“The CellCard’s officially commercially available, and it’s on this commercial basis that we’ve set up evaluations for purchase,” Whitely said. “We expect to be getting the results of these studies from the customer side over the coming weeks, and we’ll make announcements when commitments are made on their side to purchase our system.”

To kick things off, at IBC’s Assays and Cellular Targets meeting held two weeks ago in San Diego, Vitra made the first major public announcement regarding the CellCard system since it previewed the instrument at the 2003 Society for Biomolecular Screening conference in Portland, Ore.

At ACT, Taosheng Chen, a senior research investigator in the lead discovery division at Bristol-Myers Squibb, presented results from an in-depth collaborative study conducted with Vitra to validate the CellCard system in a variety of multiplexed cellular assays — which Vitra calls CellPlex assays — conducted on cancer cell lines.

“We’ve had an ongoing relationship with BMS for some time,” Whitely said. “We wanted to be sure that we could prove to them, and they could prove to themselves, that the system would provide the type of results that they need when thinking about upgrading their systems for this type of selectivity-based testing.”

According to Chen, the assays included five different assays related to cell proliferation; live/dead assays for membrane integrity; activation of caspase-3 and TUNEL assays for apoptosis; mitotic index assays for cell cycle; and BrdU incorporation assays for cell proliferation. Data from each of the multiplexed assays was compared with that from single-plex assays of the same type.

The assays were conducted using Vitra’s turnkey CellCard system, which comprises the microscopic CellCard carrier, reagents, a CCD camera-based plate reader, and analytical software. The scanner is designed to read both the “barcodes” on the CellCards, as well as fluorescence signal from the cells, Chen said. (For more on the CellCard system, see Inside Bioassays, 7/20/2004)

Results of the study showed that data generated from CellCard correlated “very well” with that obtained from single-plex assays.

“One of the main criteria for assuring that you can validate a new technology like CellPlex is that you need to show that it can generate the same type of data, within the same metrics, as existing base data,” Whitely said. “Because once you are sure that the accuracy of the data you are generating with the CellPlex is indeed accurate, then you can deliver on the promise of all the other benefits of running the cells in a single environment: no controls; the right measurements of the mechanism of action; self-controlling for what would otherwise be potential sources of error, such as pipetting problems; or compound stability problems that occur when you actually do this type of testing on a week-to-week basis.”

In addition, the BMS study corroborated one of the major selling points that Vitra has been touting for the CellCard: savings in time and money. According to the results of the study, the CellCard system afforded a 10-fold reduction in reagent usage for comparable cell-plate densities, and as much as a 100-fold reduction in cell usage per data point.

“[CellCard uses] significantly fewer reagents for very expensive assays where you’ve got, for instance, primary antibodies that are used for specific staining,” Whitely said. “But it’s not so much the fact that you would reduce the reagents that are used. It’s more that you get a lot more data points for a given investment in reagents.

“That’s very much how our customers are thinking about this right now,” Whitely added. “So it enables them to do a lot more systematic studies across many different compounds, and allow them to put together a database of information and the selectivity profile for a given compound.”

It wasn’t clear whether BMS would be immediately committing to purchase additional CellCard systems, but Whitely characterized Vitra’s relationship with BMS as long-term. BMS was a bit more enigmatic, as Chen told Inside Bioassays that “the concept of cell-based multiplexed assays is validated, and the objectives of the technology evaluation were achieved.” Chen and BMS declined to discuss any further plans the pharma giant might have for Vitra’s system.

“The situation with big pharma right now is that there’s obviously a lot of scrutiny on acquisition of new technology and capital purchase, and we envisage long sales cycles, as always, with these types of complex devices,” Whitely said. “But we have a very fixed proposition. These are products.”

Whitely added that although such a stance is not currently reflected in Vitra’s website, the company would be “upgrading the site within the next couple of weeks to give a pretty clear commercial proposition,” including product code numbers and specifications for each of the devices.

Furthermore, because Vitra is offering a complete turnkey system, it is also collaborating with certain reagent providers to validate the use of their reagents — in the appropriate quantities — on CellCard.

“The way we are doing this is by optimizing and offering protocols associated with commercially available reagents, but we’re also starting to establish tentacle collaborations … to validate specific high-value assays,” Whitely said. One example of this, Whitely added, is Invitrogen, with which Vitra recently forged an unpublicized collaboration regarding the use of beta-lactamase technology for GPCR screening on the CellCard systems.

— BB

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