A few months after Swedish biotech Cellectricon announced that it had a new distributor in the UK for DynaFlow, its flagship ion-channel screening technology, and that it was opening a US subsidiary, the company's expansion efforts are beginning to pay dividends.
A little over a week ago, Cellectricon announced that AstraZeneca, one of its early beta-test partners in Sweden, has installed DynaFlow platforms at multiple sites, including UK- and US-based laboratories.
"AstraZeneca was one of our first customers, one year ago now, and that started in Mölndal, here in Sweden," Cellectricon CEO Ulf Jönsson, told CBA News last week. "They were quite satisfied with the use of that equipment, and so the next customer was another AstraZeneca site in Sweden."
This was followed by AstraZeneca's Wilmington, Del., location in the US, and subsequently one of its UK laboratories, according to Jönsson.
"Except for the UK system, all of these sites have purchased multiple units of the Dynaflow," Jönsson said.
"Since we're a very small organization, we are focused entirely on getting this to the pharmaceutical industry. But we are actually taking a closer look at what this system might be able to do for academic research."
Cellectricon continues to receive a steady, albeit modest revenue stream from DynaFlow since it launched the product in November. According to the January press release in which Cellectricon announced it was opening a US subsidiary in Gaithersburg, Md., it had at that point sold DynaFlow platforms to nine of the top 10 pharmaceutical companies worldwide.
Last week, Jönsson told CBA News that DynaFlow's current list price is about $50,000, which includes software and hardware. Using this price, its previously stated sales figures, and assuming that each of the four AstraZeneca sites purchased at least two DynaFlows, Cellectricon has likely generated at least $850,000 in sales from DynaFlow in the past year. This figure is likely larger, as Jönsson told CBA News that it has also sold a few platforms to academic centers.
"We do have some academic customers today, but those are customers that have more or less approached us about a system," he said. "Since we're a very small organization, we are focused entirely on getting this to the pharmaceutical industry.
"But we are actually taking a closer look at what this system might be able to do for academic research," Jönsson added. "It's not that obvious, because for them, productivity is not much of an issue having a postdoc working more or less for free, it doesn't matter as much to them."
AstraZeneca remains mum about how it is specifically integrating DynaFlow into its drug-discovery program. An AstraZeneca spokesperson told CBA News last week that the company declined to comment on the use of DynaFlow, referring instead to Cellectricon's recent press release on the installations.
"At AstraZeneca, we have continued to invest in multiple DynaFlow systems because we find this to be the most flexible, increased-throughput ion channel assay system for use in whole-cell recording," Edwin Johnson, director of CNS/pain research at the drug giant's Wilmington location, said in the statement. "It has allowed us to run experiments and screen compounds on ion channel targets not possible before this system and at a throughput previously inconceivable on these targets.
"We view the DynaFlow as an excellent investment and look forward to more ion channel screening products from Cellectricon," Johnson said.
Jönsson said that to Cellectricon's dismay, there are no immediate plans for any of its customers to publish data on the use of DynaFlow.
"At AstraZeneca, we have continued to invest in multiple DynaFlow systems because we find this to be the most flexible, increased-throughput ion channel assay system for use in whole-cell recording."
"The pharma companies are normally quite reluctant to release any data in terms of scientific publications, and so on," Jönsson said. "It's unfortunate for us, because it would be very helpful if they did.
"But DynaFlow is being used in the screening stage, in lead optimization, and that is of course where the process is most sensitive to a pharmaceutical company," he added. "So they are extremely reluctant to give any data on what type of receptors or compounds they are working on."
The most competitive product to DynaFlow is likely Molecular Devices' IonWorks Quattro, an automated and highly parallel patch-clamp platform. According to Jönsson, IonWorks is an "indirect" competitor to DynaFlow.
"IonWorks doesn't have the performance that is needed in lead optimization," he said. "It is a screening system, whereby you can get essentially a 'yes' or 'no' answer. So that is not good enough in lead optimization.
"Also, [there are] two different classes of ion channels," he added. "One is voltage-gated, and one is ligand-gated, but IonWorks can only work with voltage-gated channels. So there is a whole set of ion receptors that can't be measured with IonWorks."
Shawn Handran, product manager for the IonWorks products at Molecular Devices, refuted Jönsson's comments.
"That's not an accurate assessment of IonWorks," Handran told CBA News. "IonWorks can be used early for a 'yes' or 'no' answer, but it is also used in some big pharma companies exclusively for lead optimization and pharmacology. In that sense, IonWorks is used for fully comprehensive pharmacology used during lead optimization.
"Although it tends to be used at the earlier stages from secondary screening and medicinal chemistry and lead optimization, once you start getting into later lead optimization and ADME/tox, it's not used as much," he added.
Handran conceded that IonWorks is not suitable for most ligand-gated ion channels, but stressed that PatchXpress, Molecular Devices' other high-throughput patch-clamp instrument, is.
"IonWorks can be used for certain types of ligand-gated channels, but they would be the slow non-desensitizing" types, he said. "Because of the way it's designed, you can't actually record fast currents from, for example, GABA or glutamate receptors.
"We do also have the PatchXpress, which is fully capable of studying ligand-gated channels. Certainly in the future we hope to have improvements on both [IonWorks and PatchXpress] that will expand their applicability to other channel types," Handran added.
Jönsson said that revenues from DynaFlow and leftover cash from a $7 million June 2004 financing round would be enough to sustain Cellectricon.
"We still have some money left from the financing, but with the present plans of the company, we don't expect to need any new financing, although we do have quite a lot of ideas on some other things we'd like to explore," Jönsson said. "Having said that, we would probably seek another small investor to be able to explore the other ideas and opportunities. But considering the last financing round, and the business with Dynaflow, we are more or less self-sustained."
Jönsson declined to comment on what additional areas Cellectricon might explore in the future
Ben Butkus ([email protected])
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The news surrounding DynaFlow has been positive enough that Cellectricon has actually pushed back the release of some of the other drug-discovery technologies it is developing.
In June, Owe Orwar, Cellectricon's CSO and co-founder, told CBA News that the company planned to release an instrument called CellAxess for high-throughput single-cell transfection via electroporation. He also said that two pharma companies had begun beta-testing the device (see CBA News, 6/29/2004).
Last week, however, Ulf Jönsson, Cellectricon's CEO, said that Orwar probably gave "a quite optimistic schedule," and that CellAxess is now targeted for release in the fourth quarter of this year. He added that the pharma partners are still beta-testing the product.
Considering the increasing presence of cell-based assays in large-scale drug discovery, the market for such a high-throughput transfection product is likely large. However, Cellectricon may be wise to focus primarily on the ion channel screening market in the immediate future.
According to a July 2004 survey of large pharmas and biotechs conducted by market research firm Select Biosciences, the pharma market that year for ion channel profiling for in-house and outsourced profiling was estimated to be $58.9 million and $15.7 million, respectively.
Furthermore, according to the survey, there is a relatively unfulfilled need in drug discovery for a technology such as DynaFlow. Jönsson has said that Cellectricon is targeting DynaFlow towards secondary ion-channel screening stages, such as selectivity profiling and lead optimization. Most survey respondents said that in the area of selectivity profiling, they preferred no single assay technology. In lead optimization, meantime, respondents said they preferred traditional manual or semi-manual patch clamping.