Cellomics has initiated a collaboration with the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in which the German institute will serve as an advanced test site for new Cellomics products, executives from the Pittsburgh-based HCS vendor told CBA News last week.
The partnership may bolster Cellomics' presence in the European market, a strategy that the company has recently pursued with gusto. In early June, the firm held its inaugural European user group meeting in conjunction with the Marcus Evans HCS conference in London, and two weeks ago it announced that it had expanded its European workforce and would be adding more European-based programs and meetings to its agenda.
Dresden-based Max Planck will also be the fourth major academic collaborator — and the first formal alliance in Europe — that Cellomics has signed on, Dan Calvo, Cellomics' president and CEO, told CBA News, and is expected to help the company further delve into the academic market for HCS. Cellomics' other academic collaborators are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-Whitehead Institute; University of California, San Francisco; and the Mayo Clinic, all in the US.
"Those collaborations have been very helpful to us to get a better handle on the academic marketplace, and the requirements that those kinds of users have from an application perspective and a functionality perspective with the platform," Calvo said.
"As we started to grow and expand our global presence, we definitely wanted to find a collaborator in Europe … and we feel Max Planck is perfect, given their experience in this area; their ties into the academic community — not just in Germany, but all across Europe; and certainly the capabilities they have in high-content screening technology," he added. "So that's how it fits into our overall strategy for the market opportunity in academia."
"It's not only general technology development
as an alpha-beta tester, but they have some specific expertise that we are going to tap into as part of this — so that's a plus."
Jeff Haskins, Cellomics' vice president of technology and product development, told CBA News that although Cellomics has other academic collaborators in Europe, the Max Planck partnership will be a more formal one.
"There are other people we use [in Europe] in a less frequent, less formal, less collaborative way," Haskins said. "This is definitely sharing of technology under some defined milestones that is different than we have with other academic customers. I can't go into a lot of details about exactly what we're going to do, but the best way to describe it is that they are going to be one of our premier alpha-beta test partners," Haskins said.
In addition, Haskins hinted that Cellomics might eventually be able to leverage the Max Planck alliance in its HCS business. "They also have some well-defined areas of expertise," he said. "So it's not only general technology development as an alpha-beta tester, but they have some specific expertise that we are going to tap into as part of this — so that's a plus."
Haskins declined to provide additional specifics. However, Ivan Baines, scientific coordinator and director of service and facilities at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, last week told CBA News that Cellomics would likely be interested in the assay development work being done at his center.
"We have developed a number of assays, both generic and specific," Baines said. "The generic assays are interesting because they have the potential to be provided with a product. The more specific assays are interesting because they capture the essence of measuring high-content screening — in other words, measuring multiple parameters at a high resolution to make a prediction."
Baines said that a classic example of assays the center is developing involves angiogenesis, for which reliable screening assays have been long sought after but difficult to achieve for the pharmaceutical industry.
The fact that the Max Planck center will serve as an alpha- and beta-tester doesn't necessarily mean that a new HCS platform is due from Cellomics anytime soon.
In the near-term, the center has purchased a Cellomics ArrayScan VTI high-content screening instrument, the company's most up-to-date version of the ArrayScan product, according to Haskins. In addition, the center has purchased "our complete suite of bioapplications and HCi informatics, and they'll probably be using some of our kits along the way, as well," he said.
The Max Planck Institute has actually become a hotbed for industry collaboration in Europe over the past several years. For example, it is the coordinating institute in the High-Throughput Technology Development Studio project, a collaboration that is funded by the German government through the BioMeT Network and includes the Technische Universität Dresden; HCS vendor Evotec Technologies; image-analysis software provider Definiens; and RNAi firm Cenix (see Phenotype, this issue).
At first glance, it might seem that the center's agreement with Cellomics would conflict with its current relationship with Evotec, whose Opera HCS platform is a top competitor to the ArrayScan. However, Baines said the Opera and ArrayScan platforms are not mutually exclusive.
"We were careful in our arrangements to not limit ourselves with regards to exclusivity, when we felt that there were non-overlapping instrument specifications which would have very different uses," Baines said. "And indeed, there are particular instruments that do quite different things, and really [Evotec and Cellomics] don't consider themselves in competition in those areas."
As an example, Baines said, the Opera is more suitable for screens that necessitate higher resolution achieved through true confocality. An example of such a screen is investigating the paths that infectious organisms take as they enter the cell, he said.
The ArrayScan, on the other hand, is more suitable for higher-throughput studies where the researchers desire a kinetic response from the cell, or "assays where we want to capture a very rapid event with quite significant throughput and suitable resolution," Baines said.
"You can do basic bread-and-butter high-content screening with either instrument, but when you start pushing the limits, that's where there are preferences," he said.
As for the other members of the TDS consortium, Cellomics acknowledged that the possibility exists for its relationship with MPI-CGB to translate into partnerships with Definiens or Cenix, but that nothing specific was yet in the works.
"There is nothing definitive going on with either of those companies right now," Haskins said. "Certainly, given how they work together, we're open to develop collaborations to further the field of HCS. You've heard that from us before, and you'll continue to hear that."
— Ben Butkus ([email protected])