For academic and non-profit labs doing cell-based assays, high throughput often means only one thing: high cost. Although the number of instruments available for high-throughput cell-based assays is on the rise, many of these basic researchers cannot afford them, and are relegated to either using traditional cell screening methods or devising their own.
Pittsburgh-based Cellomics is hoping to change this scenario with the introduction of an instrument platform made up of pre-owned, automated, high-throughput cell assay tools, which it is offering to basic biology labs at a reduced price.
Although high-throughput screening — also called high-content analysis — can be implemented with a few technologies, in Cellomics' case it means using the company's fixed-endpoint or kinetic optical scanners and associated image analysis tools to gather and analyze data from fluorescently tagged cells.
Pharmaceutical industry customers might use such a platform to find out what effect a drug candidate has on dozens of cellular characteristics, such as growth, motility, signaling, and viability.
The ability to multiplex assays by analyzing thousands of cells at the same time is what has made the technology attractive to some. But for the most part, basic research laboratories have attempted to uncover similar information using traditional interactive fluorescence microscopy — which means hours upon hours of standing at the bench top analyzing cells.
"Most of these analyses are currently done in a very manual method," said Judy Masucci, Cellomics' director of marketing. "Researchers typically use a fluorescence microscope equipped with a camera, take pictures of cells of interest, and then someone analyzes these images later."
In March, Cellomics announced that it would begin offering used models of its flagship fixed-endpoint instrument, the ArrayScan HCS Reader. The company says the instruments will be certified by staff scientists and will include a one-year warranty.
The instrument, which optically scans 96- or 384-well plates, will be sold as part of an entire high-content screening package comprising specialized algorithms for neuron and tumor cell analysis, image analysis software for various applications, and high-content informatics software.
"Actually, the reduced pricing is available to anyone who is interested in high-content screening, but we're targeting it toward the academic laboratories because they tend not to be able to afford the full-priced instrumentation," Masucci said.
According to Masucci, two versions of the pre-owned instrument will be available — the 3.1 version, which is the oldest model, and the 4.0, which was the company's newest model until December 2003, when it launched its most recent product, the ArrayScan VTI HCS Reader.
The 3.1 version will be available at about $175,000, approximately half the price of an equivalent new instrument equipped with all the same analysis tools and software. The 4.0 version will be offered at about a 30 percent discount from an equivalently equipped new instrument. In comparison, Masucci said that a VTI HCS Reader ranges from $195,000 for a bare-bones version to as much as $450,000 for one with all the bells and whistles.
While pharmaceutical companies use Cellomics' system for drug-discovery purposes, Masucci thinks that most academic researchers would use the platform for high-throughput functional genomics assays.
"Now that we have the sequence of the human genome, we have all these genes outlined — so what do they do?" Masucci said. "What effects do upregulating or downregulating a gene have on a cell? Anybody doing siRNA work … or anybody looking at protein expression in a live-cell state would be interested in using this type of platform. So it doesn't have to be just for drug development."
The offering seems to be part of a wider effort by Cellomics to make high-content screening more accessible to the biology community at-large. Late last year, the company announced it had opened a center of excellence for high-content screening at its Pittsburgh headquarters. Among other initiatives, the center of excellence includes HCS101, a "boot camp" for high-throughput screening technology. The four-day course will be offered for free to new customers.
Masucci said Cellomics has sold a few pre-owned platforms and has a number of interested prospects. So far, the company has met its goal of garnering academic interest, but several pharmaceutical companies have also expressed interest in the product.
"Some pharmaceutical companies have our original platform," Masucci said, "but are now looking to add more to their labs at a significantly reduced price."