Cellomics last week introduced several upgrades to its KineticScan high-content screening platform, a move it believes will help invigorate sales of the platform within academic and other basic research laboratories.
The upgrades, which are expected to make the instrument easier to use, will be free to current KineticScan owners, as long as they are "on an active warranty or maintenance and support agreement," said Judy Masucci, Cellomics' director of marketing.
For new customers, the upgrades will be featured as part of what Cellomics is calling Version 2.2.0 of the KineticScan. The base price of the instrument will remain the same, Masucci said.
The KineticScan is one of two major HCS platforms that Cellomics sells; the other being the ArrayScan HCS reader. While the latter is more suitable for pharmaceutical scientists conducting higher-throughput cell-based drug screening, the KineticScan is designed for longer-term, live-cell assay development or target validation studies.
Although Cellomics doesn't disclose sales figures for its products, Masucci said that the ArrayScan is Cellomics' better-selling instrument, primarily because it is for high-throughput screening.
Masucci's comment underscores the idea that true high-content screening platforms that offer long-term, live-cell, image-based applications are a harder sell to pharma, primarily because pharma still wants to perform high-content screening at a higher throughput level. Although the speed of automated microscopy platforms and image-analysis software has vastly improved over the past several years, it is still not ready for the earlier stages of drug screening, according to people in the industry.
According to Masucci, Cellomics places the majority of its KineticScan instruments in academia with just a few in pharma. However, she added, although ArrayScans are the preferred platform for pharma, they are also prevalent in academia.
Masucci said that the new upgrades to the KineticScan are "absolutely" expected to increase sales, mainly among academic users, "because of the assays it now enables, being able to do kinetic studies with every one of our bioapplications."
Further explaining this point, Masucci said that previously the KineticScan "was a little bit limited because you couldn't use all of our [image-analysis] bioapplications." In fact, KineticScan users could only use three applications for kinetic studies, Masucci said, while the rest of the applications could only be used for fixed endpoint studies.
Now, she said, each of Cellomics' 16 or so image-analysis applications can be run in kinetic mode "so that the same applications that are used on the ArrayScan can be used on the KineticScan, and they can all be either fixed endpoint or kinetic."
While pharma may not be as interested in such an upgrade, Cellomics clearly is targeting the rapidly growing number of academic researchers engaged in drug screening. Although the approach of such researchers is similar to those in pharma, there is not as much pressure to conduct studies in high throughput. In fact, any improvement over sitting at a bench and staring through a microscope is a significant improvement.
"When you are doing an assay using a microscope … you can look at two sets of cells and look at differences between those cells, but there is no way to really quantify those differences," said Anthony Davis, the HCS coordinator at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. "And this machine actually looks at the morphology, and various parameters, and provides numbers for these things, which is a massive step forward. Couple that with the fact that it's automated, meaning you can run large-scale assays, or large numbers of assays — at one time it may have taken you all day to run one or two assays; this thing can run hundreds, and it's all done automatically."
The lab that Davis oversees at Trinity College purchased a KineticScan about a year ago, he said. And although the lab is just starting to ramp up use of the instrument, Cellomics has trained the users on the latest upgrade. Davis said that the value of the upgrade is the flexibility it confers to the instrument, and, in the case of his laboratory's research, the ability to conduct studies such as cell migration.
"With the kinetic applications on live cells, the machine can actually track individual cells and give you information on them for things like cell migration studies," he said. "That can all be done on the go, whereas before you had to collect the data first, and then run it through an informatics toolbox afterward.
"That's fine, but if you've made some error, or there is some problem, then that's it — you can't change the conditions or parameters as you go along," he said, referring to the old KineticScan. "I think we would [want] that new update, because it will give us that extra flexibility."
Other updates in Version 2.2.0 include a cell motility module that "reports features such as persistence, acceleration, and directionality on a well-by-well or cell-by-cell basis"; and the ability to modify the instrument's pipettor from a multi-channel to a single-channel configuration.
Davis said the cell motility module was already available on KineticScan, but now "it actually prints it out on the screen for you."
"So again, if you're looking at something like cell migration — or there are probably a number of other assays you could use this for — it can actually tell you the cell's coordinates on the plate, how far it's moved, and the kinetics of that movement. So if it's in response to some drug, there may be some sort of activation curve you could derive from that."
Davis also said that his group has talked about the possibility that one could use the application to measure entities within cells. "It's something we're interested in — say there is some receptor or something — it's possible that you could measure the movement of that receptor inside the cell," he said. "But we don't know if that's possible yet."
— Ben Butkus ([email protected])