Earlier this month, Chip-Man Technologies, a Finnish startup company, launched Cell-IQ, its online live-cell monitoring system, at Drug Discovery Technology Europe in London.
Last week, the company took a major step in its quest to further develop the product for the drug-discovery market, securing €1.4 million ($1.8 million) in financing from Aura Capital and Finnish Industry Investment.
Chip-Man, which has six full-time and two part-time employees, has its roots in Finnish electrical R&D. “We started with micromanipulation systems and machine-vision systems for detecting [electrical] components of the size of a few tenths of micrometers” — which is not that far off from cellular structures, Chip-Man CEO Juha Korpinen told Inside Bioassays.
In 1999, Korpinen was working for the Technical Research Center of Finland, known as VTT. At that time, he established a research project with groups at the University of Tampere, Tampere University of Technology, Helsinki University of Technology, and VTT, resulting in prototypes for the Cell-IQ and the founding of the company.
The Cell-IQ, a big box with a monitor by its side, cultivates cells, monitors them, and automatically measures several different parameters in real time using machine vision. Unlike many other cell-based assay systems, it does not require the cells to be labeled or stained, so they remain unharmed during the testing period.
The system integrates an incubator, which can take up to two microplates, an optical system based on phase contrast microscopy, and analysis software. “It’s a complete wet lab in the same compact package,” Korpinen told Inside Bioassays.
Any visible cellular changes — several hundred, in theory — can be measured over time, such as the number of living, dying, and proliferating cells; dynamic parameters like migration or attachment; and morphological features like neuritis of nerve cells, changes in the cytoplasm or the nucleus, or differentiation of stem cells. “If [researchers] can see something, we can teach the system to understand it,” Korpinen said. The instrument can measure up to 10 parameters in parallel, he added, although he later said that the system is capable of more.
Using the images obtained by the microscope, the software builds “information-rich” images, “so we get more information from those cells than just using, for example, auto-focusing,” said Korpinen. This enables the system to perform the analysis in an automated way, and display the results graphically as changes over time.
According to Chip-Man’s website, the new instrument can replace “poorly defined end-point analysis methods” to measure, for example, proliferation, apoptosis, movement, or cell type. “We have kind of an endpoint test all through the testing period,” Korpinen said. “You get continuous trend curves which show the dynamic behavior of the cell population.” This cuts down on the number of microplates required for each assay: In an end-point assay, one plate produces only one data point, while the Cell-IQ can obtain many data points from one plate by taking several measurements over time.
Korpinen maintains that the system is well suited for drug screening, albeit not for the high-throughput phase that looks for one specific effect of a compound, but for later stages where multiple reactions of a cell to a drug are recorded. “What you get is a lot more information from the cell,” Korpinen said. “It’s truly a high-content screening device.”
Most so-called high-content screening systems on the market use confocal microscopy or some variation thereof and thus can obtain information-rich sub-cellular images. The Cell-IQ is not designed to image sub-cellularly per se, but Chip-Man maintains that it is high-content nonetheless.
“The sub-cellular features are seen more or less,” Korpinen said. “But we do not track particular sub-cellular events, because we see the cell [itself] as a system showing the status of the cell.”
Chip-Man estimates that the market for automated cellular-analysis tools in pharmaceutical and medical research is around $500 million, with a 30-percent annual growth rate.
The company plans to target both commercial and academic users with its system, which has a list price ranging from €160,000 to €265,000, depending on the number of assays. Korpinen said that the company is particularly targeting labs that frequently use standard microscopes to conduct cellular analysis. Users who have had access to Cell-IQ include both undisclosed academic researchers and drug-discovery companies, and Chip-Man is currently negotiating with pharmaceutical companies.
Competitors likely include microscopy vendors, especially those that provide time-lapse functions and analysis programs. “There are some companies that provide features that have similarity [to our system], but this is, as far as we know, the only system that has all these features,” Korpinen said.
In addition, several companies are marketing label-free cellular assay systems, some image-based and some not. Perhaps the most successful of these is Hayward, Calif.-based Biolog, which has developed bacterial and yeast cell arrays from which multiple measurements can be taken with its OmniLog confocal, non-fluorescent imaging system. Biolog has won several NIH grants to further develop its platform, and has also landed several high-profile academic and biotechnology customers. It plans to release mammalian versions of the cell arrays this year (see Inside Bioassays, 10/19/2004).
Companies with less mature platforms include Acea Biosciences, which markets a cell-based assay platform based on microelectronic sensing (see Inside Bioassays, 1/18/2005); and Wafergen, which markets a miniaturized computer chip including photodiodes and heating/cooling elements to collect data from cells growing on top of it (see Inside Bioassays, 7/13/2004).
Right now, Chip-Man’s instrument is only available in Central Europe, but the company plans to launch in the US later this year and in Japan next year.
Besides covering the Scandinavian countries, Cell-Man has distributors in Austria, Spain, Italy, France, Belgium, and Germany, and will open a sales office in the UK next month.
The money from Chip-Man’s first funding round will help the company further build its distribution networks in Europe, and later in the US and Japan. Part of the funding will also go towards the development of the next generation of Cell-IQ, the company said.