PITTSBURGH — Nine scientists and one journalist convened here last week to take part in “HCS boot camp,” the unofficial moniker for HCS 101, Cellomics’ full-immersion training course for users of its high-content screening platforms.
Cellomics has carved out a unique niche for itself in the drug discovery tools marketplace, as it sits upon a valuable patent portfolio that covers a wide range of image-based cellular analysis methods for high-content drug screening or functional genomic analysis.
This core patent portfolio has become highly sought after (see related story, above). Nevertheless, Cellomics remains committed to providing soup-to-nuts HCS and drug-discovery capabilities — from reagent kits and plate scanners, to image analysis and data-mining software and hardware.
“We based the company on tools to address every stage in the cellular discovery cycle,” Joe Zock, Cellomics’ senior customer support scientist and manager of HCS user services, and manager of the HCS 101 class, said at the course.
But Cellomics realized that simply providing the tools might not be enough. The company’s image-analysis platform, the vHCS Discovery Toolbox, might be thought of as user-friendly, considering the relatively complicated nature of high-content cellular analysis.
But it would be inaccurate to suggest that the platform is easy to use straight out of the box, even for a trained cell biologist. And even for those who are comfortable going it alone, Cellomics wants to make sure its users are getting maximum benefit from the product.
Therefore, the company took an idea that Zock brought with him from his past experiences dealing with Amersham Biosciences’ [now GE Healthcare’s] LeadSeeker plate reader.
“When I was in pharma, I had an experience with Amersham where they were trying to launch scintillation proximity assay technology, and it was very similar to [Cellomics’] environment in that it was a very new technology, there were a lot of early adopters trying it, and they were frustrated because they were having problems with it,” Zock said. “And they had difficulty getting back to Amersham, which built up a very negative clientele, and they needed to do something to change that.”
According to Zock, Amersham conceived of a “technology transfer process” in which the company paid for people to come to its headquarters and conduct SPA training — an experience in which Zock was able to participate.
“It was a tremendous experience, because it put me in direct touch with the developers. We sat in the lab and ran through things; we went through approaches, learned tips and tricks. … We did what it took to become what I call a champion,” Zock said. “That concept stuck with me.”
So when Zock began working for Cellomics, he brought the concept with him because he recognized the parallels. After some convincing, he said, senior management at Cellomics adopted his idea and decided to implement a similar strategy with HCS 101.
“This is not like installation training,” Zock explained. “It’s not like, ‘Where’re the buttons?’ Instead, it’s, ‘How do you approach this whole field — from plate preparation, knowing what the bio-applications do, knowing how the instrument works, and then, how do I mentally go through the process? I see an image, but what do I see in it, how do I write it down, and what do I pick out?’ That process is the essence of making this work.”
The four-day course begins with a general overview of HCS, and then a basic introduction to plate preparation and bio-applications.
The second day focuses on the ArrayScan platform, and how to optimize specific bio-applications.
During the last two days, participants start heavily using the instruments and software to solve problems with less guidance from the support staff. Many participents even have their own microwell plates shipped to Cellomics’ headquarters for analysis.
The entire process occurs in a collegial atmosphere, as the participants go out at night with Cellomics scientists to explore the company’s hometown.
For users who do not feel the class would be worthwhile, or for those who want continued support after the class, Cellomics also recently launched Club HCS, another brainchild of Zock’s. Club HCS is an online support forum that allows users to search for solutions to common problems, pose questions to support staff (Zock said that he reads every e-mail sent via the site), and interact with other HCS users.
The entire process is certainly unique among drug-discovery tools companies, and perhaps among all biotechnology tools providers.
But one would be naïve to think that the only one benefiting from HCS 101 is the customer. Cellomics reaps many benefits from holding the classes, even beyond the obvious financial ones. The entire class costs a few thousand dollars, but Cellomics includes a free class within the purchase price of a new HCS platform.
The real benefit for Cellomics comes from the fact that the company has hopefully ensured additional instrument purchases from existing users, and new instrument purchases via word of mouth from class participants.
“Even the sales guys go out and promote it,” Zock said. “They don’t get any commission on it. They promote it because they know that power users buy stuff.”
Furthermore, Cellomics receives valuable feedback from existing customers about what can be improved, and even learns some new tricks.
“Every now and then, somebody in the class will devise a totally new way to solve a problem,” said Richik Ghosh, a Cellomics scientist and lead instructor for the class.
Another interesting point is that Cellomics continues to spread the idea of HCS around the biological community by attracting a wide variety of class participants. At last week’s class, one participant was a Germany-based Cellomics employee, four were scientists at drug discovery or biotech firms, two were from an academic center, and one was from a large pharmaceutical company.
Most of the participants could not disclose their identities in adherence to their company’s policies, but the two academic scientists, from the University of Toronto-affiliated Children’s Hospital, discussed their objectives with Inside Bioassays, as well as how HCS is becoming more useful in academic research.
“We’re relatively new customers, and we got one of the KineticScan instruments through an infrastructure grant to provide platforms for HCS to the academic community,” said Christopher Fladd of Children’s Hospital. “For the most part, this has been beyond the scope of what academic researchers usually have access to.
“So we came to have a better understanding of the power and flexibility of the platform, and be able to take that back to the academic community.”
Fladd and colleague Greg Brothers use the platform for their own research, as well, which centers on ubiquination, a process that typically targets cellular proteins for degradation and is implicated in a variety of disease states.
“As an academic researcher, you would have a grad student taking individual pictures [of cells], and it’s a very labor-intensive process,” Fladd said. “And at the end of the day, you don’t get the same sort of data. They’re making judgments based on visual data as opposed to having quantitative data from the instrument. Sometimes you can see a very subtle phenomenon that by observation is just missed.”
“It also allows us to do scans that we would traditionally do with in vitro assays, which require a lot more work,” Brothers added. “To do this in an in vitro assay, we have to express and purify proteins, and then traditionally, go back and develop a cell-based assay.
“Now we can skip all of that and do a cell-based assay up front as our primary screen. So it kind of flips things around where we’ll do the in vitro assay as validation.”
Down the road, it appears as if Cellomics will continue to build on HCS 101 and develop an entire continuing-education process that Zock foresees as an almost university-like atmosphere.
“We’re embarking on designing a 201 and a 301 class,” he said. “We’re thinking the 201-level classes will be much more focused on a specific application, or set of applications, or informatics.
“And then we’re thinking about 300-level classes that might be focused around a specific type of biology. And maybe we’ll bring in some experts in the field, which would be really, really cool,” Zock added.
“But the process, the field of cellomics should never stop,” he said. “You’re always going to be learning new stuff.”