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Despite New IN Cell Customer, Speculation Lurks that Tech May Not Last Long at GE


GE Healthcare last week announced that it had placed an IN Cell 1000 high-content screening instrument at the Institut Curie in Paris — marking the first customer GE Healthcare has publicly disclosed since it acquired Amersham last year.

The placement may confound speculation in the high-content screening community that the IN Cell product line has lost its luster a year-and-a-half after GE Healthcare acquired Amersham Biosciences. Since then, some industry insiders have conjectured that pieces of Amersham — including the HCS business — may not be in GE Healthcare's long-term plans.

Franck Perez, one of the Institut Curie scientists who will be using the IN Cell unit, said his research group has tested the instrument on site for "six to nine months," and will now officially install the platform in a new building at the Institut dedicated to high-throughput drug screening.

"This is a cancer research institute, and about 10 years ago they built a cell biology department, thinking that investing in cell biology may advance cancer research," Perez told CBA News. "And now I think it's time for this to change gears, and move towards high-throughput screening. This is something that is installed a lot in the [US], and a bit in Germany; but in France, we don't really have much high-throughput screening in cell biology. So we decided that at Curie we will start that."

Perez said his group settled on the IN Cell after evaluating several undisclosed HCS platforms.

High-throughput screening "is something that is installed a lot in the [US], and a bit in Germany; but in France, we don't really have much high-throughput screening in cell biology. So we decided that at Curie we will start that."

"We were impressed by the image quality of the InCell 1000," Perez said. "It is based on excellent optics that give impressively sharp images even at low magnification. The speed of acquisition was also very good. The drawback is that it is not as automated as other systems, but overall we found speed and image quality [to be] more important.

"In addition, we set up a collaborative agreement with GE Healthcare, which was a real plus for us," he added. "As the price is concerned, the InCell 1000 is in the middle range in comparison with other systems we evaluated, but thanks to the collaboration agreement we got a very good deal. The price of some other systems was sometimes very high when one has to buy a lot of analysis modules, which is our case. Other low-price systems were not very convincing in our evaluation."

According to Perez, "the price we got before the agreement, installed with a Twister robotic arm, four dichroics, three objectives, and one analysis license [for algorithms] was around €375,000 ($453,000)."

The Institut Curie will be using the IN Cell to screen cancer-based cell lines to "find genes that are involved, or to find drugs, since we have a chemical library here. All these other things that people do now either in vitro or in animal models, we will do in cells," Perez said. He added that another part of the Institut's research using the IN Cell will involve RNAi knockdown of genes involved in cell physiology and disease development. For this part of the research, the Institut will collaborate with reagent provider Qiagen, Perez said.

Are Rumors of IN Cell's Death Exaggerated?

The Curie placement will likely confound speculation in the high-content screening community that sales of the IN Cell product line have dwindled a year-and-a-half after GE Healthcare acquired Amersham Biosciences for $9.5 billion. Since then, some industry insiders have speculated that pieces of Amersham — including the HCS business — may not be in GE Healthcare's long-term plans.

According to a former long-time Amersham senior executive who left following the GE Healthcare acquisition, the bulk of the IN Cell manufacturing was done at two locations that were recently scuttled or downsized. He asked to remain anonymous because of his current affiliation with another drug-screening tool vendor.

In March, GenomeWeb News, a CBA News sister publication, reported that GE Healthcare was shutting down the St. Catharine's, Ontario-based Imaging Research facility, which it acquired along with Amersham. Around the same time, GenomeWeb News also reported that GE Healthcare would lay off as many as 120 workers from its Sunnyvale, Calif., facility, which served as the birthplace of Amersham Bioscience's MegaBACE DNA-sequencing technology and other genomics instruments.

While GE offered transfers to the majority of its employees from both sites, he said, nearly no one accepted, choosing instead to pursue other opportunities.

The Institut Curie partnership is the first new IN Cell customer that GE Healthcare has officially announced since the Amersham acquisition. This plus the facility closures and lay-offs have led some to believe that the company has had a tough time selling the product.

"I'm hearing that [GE Healthcare] can't move these IN Cell instruments out. And it's got to be the customer confidence, because they're hearing about all this bad stuff that's happening with Discovery Systems," he added, referring to the facility closures and lay-offs. "It is common knowledge that they shut down the manufacturing site for the IN Cell 3000, and the last ones are in the box."

Asked to respond to the comments, a GE Healthcare spokesperson said in an e-mail to CBA News that "this is one anonymous employee's perspective and certainly does not represent the views of other employees or the actual health and success of the overall company.

"GE Healthcare is spending over $1 billion dollars a year on R&D to ensure a product pipeline that addresses the needs of our customers," the e-mail continues. "We have the benefit of the scientific expertise in the GE Research Center in Niskayuna, NY, where researchers from different disciplines such as nano-materials, engineering, chemistry, [and] biology all work together to create technology breakthroughs that wouldn't be possible if each researcher was working in a silo."

The spokesperson added that it has been a "great year for the legacy Amersham businesses since the acquisition," and referred to CEO Jeff Immelt's comments from an April investors earnings call that cited increases in services and equipment sales in the Biosciences segment.

If the former executive's assessment is accurate, it stands in stark contrast to steps GE has taken in the past year to shore up its HCS position. Besides last week's announcements, the company last summer struck deals with Cellomics to license its core IP for high-content screening methods and to allow customers to interface IN Cell data with Cellomics' informatics software (see CBA News 6/29/2004 and 7/6/2004). In addition, GE acquired an "umbrella" license to Aequoria victoria GFP that allows it to sublicense the vector to for-profit institutions wishing to use it in drug discovery (see CBA News 6/15/2004).

GE Healthcare also continues to hammer out the details of a relationship with Dharmacon that could result in a product combining Dharmacon's RNAi reagents with the IN Cell for high-content gene knockdown studies (see CBA News 5/23/2005 and the current issue of RNAi News, a CBA News sister publication).

And even though the Institut Curie partnership was the first IN Cell customer GE Healthcare publicly announced, Anne Jones, director of marketing for Cellular Sciences, Lead Discovery, in GE Healthcare's Discovery Systems division, said that it is "definitely not" the first non-legacy IN Cell customer since GE purchased Amersham.

"It is true that this is the first [customer] we have chosen to issue a press release on," Jones wrote. "However, customers' work using IN Cell has been highlighted in other ways. Most recently, we hosted a panel at BIO 2005 on the value of cellular analysis in drug discovery. Our panelists discussed the excellent results they've gotten using the IN Cell system … [and] included Bonnie Howell from Merck, Spyro Mousses from TGen, Bill Marshall from Dharmacon, and Len Pagliaro from BioImage."

Jones added that although GE "doesn't break out numbers for GE Healthcare Biosciences down to the level that Amersham presented to the financial community," IN Cell customers have "increased by double digits and in some regions triple digits" since the acquisition.

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

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