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Fisher s BioImage Buy Rounds Out New Cell and Pathway Apps Unit, Yields Reagents for Cellomics

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Fisher Biosciences has acquired Danish biotechnology firm BioImage for an undisclosed amount, and will fold the new subsidiary into a recently created Cell and Pathway Applications business unit that also includes Fisher brands Cellomics and Pierce, Fisher said this week.

The acquisition supports Fisher's recently stated goal of building its consumables offerings in the molecular biology tools arena, and, more specifically, of surrounding its Cellomics high-content screening business with as diverse and complementary a reagent catalog as possible.

Adding BioImage to the fold also gives Fisher arguably the most comprehensive patent portfolio related to high-content screening due to the combination of BioImage's GFP-related patents and Cellomics' HCS instrumentation and methods IP.

"It really is about filling out a portfolio of reagent products to broaden the assays that are available, and take much more advantage of our strength in hardware and software," said Dan Calvo, Cellomics' president and CEO.

BioImage, based in Copenhagen, Denmark, has been around since 1999 when it was spun out of Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk. It provides high-content screening products, services, and licenses based on its flagship Redistribution technology. Redistribution, broadly speaking, enables researchers to monitor intracellular protein translocation using fluorescent proteins, and is the basis for many commercial high-content assays.


"It really is about filling out a portfolio of reagent products to broaden the assays that are available, and take much more advantage of our strength in hardware and software."

Cellomics officials last week declined to disclose the acquisition price or BioImage's revenues last year, or whether Fisher plans to disclose that information in its upcoming first-quarter earnings call, scheduled for May 2.

Jeff Haskins, Cellomics' vice president of technology and product development, told CBA News that BioImage's revenues last year were a combination of Redistribution licenses, fee-for-service business, and assay sales.

Haskins also said that BioImage plans to maintain operations in Copenhagen as a full-fledged subsidiary of Fisher Biosciences, and that it would continue to provide high-content screening services and products.

Though it owns a strong IP position in high-content screening, BioImage may have been ripe for the picking due to financial hardship. As recently as September 2004, BioImage had ongoing internal drug-discovery programs in the areas of inflammation and oncology (see CBA News, 9/14/2004), though the company discontinued its drug-discovery program some time in 2005.

"As far as the assets from that business, I can't comment on it," Haskins said. "We didn't acquire those, and we have no intention of starting that up again."

In addition, BioImage's staff has been slowly shrinking. In a December 2004 statement, BioImage said that it employed approximately 40 people; and in 2005, that number had dropped to 30. Haskins this week said that BioImage currently has approximately 20 staffers, all of whom will become Fisher employees.

Buying Spree

The BioImage buyout is the latest in a spate of acquisitions by Fisher Biosciences over the last two years designed to bolster the company's position in the cell-based assay and high-content screening markets.

In early 2004, Fisher bought RNAi firm Dharmacon for $80 million, and in September 2005 snatched up high-content analysis company Cellomics. The latter acquisition shed additional light on the underlying strategy of the former, as RNAi-based reagents and high-content imaging have recently become increasingly complementary for functional genomics, target identification, and target validation applications.

In fact, the reagents and laboratory products offered through Fisher's Pierce, HyClone, and AbGene subsidiaries also mesh well with Cellomics, which was well-known for its expertise in imaging instrumentation, informatics, and assay development, but had a relative dearth of in-house reagent offerings.

The BioImage acquisition will also complement Cellomics' core technologies, said Cellomics' Calvo. "Clearly, coming into the Fisher fold, one of the aspects … was to build out a much stronger reagent capability than Cellomics could do as a standalone company," Calvo said. "Fisher alternatively was interested in building a strong cell-based assay portfolio, as well — not just for imaging based assays, but for broader use.

"What BioImage brings is a strong cell line capability that is certainly going to become more and more important over time — with the live assays as well as fixed endpoint," he added. "We have the ability to integrate some of the things that we have — for example, biosensor technology — into some of those assays. It really is about filling out a portfolio of reagent products to broaden the assays that are available, and take much more advantage of our strength in hardware and software."

To better envelop its growing cell-based assay play, Fisher has recently formed a new business unit, dubbed Cell and Pathways Applications, which includes the Cellomics and Pierce subsidiaries, and will now house BioImage, Chris Budde, vice president and general manager of the unit, told CBA News.

BioImage IP

Just as important as the actual technology and expertise that Fisher Biosciences will inherit along with BioImage is a strong patent portfolio for cell-based assays that will serve to bolster Cellomics' already comprehensive IP estate for high-content cellular analysis methods and instrumentation.

BioImage has US patents on the methods that underlie the Redistribution technology; specifically, following the movement of green fluorescent protein from one part of a cell to another and detecting interactions between cellular proteins labeled with GFP to extract useful information for drug discovery. It also has patents on specific GFP mutants with improved fluorescence properties, and holds several related European patents for all of the above methods and technologies (see related table, below).

The reason these patents are important is that many commercial high-content assays are based on such techniques, and therefore previously needed to be licensed from BioImage to be used for commercial purposes. For example, Molecular Devices licensed BioImage's patents when it acquired the Transfluor technology — which is a specific type of Redistribution assay — so it could sell the assay commercially.

In addition, GE Healthcare has sub-licensed BioImage's GFP-related patents (along with patents from Columbia University, Invitrogen, and the University of Florida) in order to offer an "umbrella" license for GFP reagents to its customers.

It is unclear whether these licensing agreements were one-time deals or are ongoing, but if they are long-term, then presumably Molecular Devices and GE Healthcare, both Fisher rivals in the space, would now have to pay Fisher Biosciences license fees. High-content screening vendors including MDCC, GE Healthcare, and BD Biosciences already have licensed Cellomics' core high-content screening patents to allow their commercial customers to practice HCS worry-free.

"At this point, we're not going to comment on any of the patent agreements," Haskins told CBA News.

The Redistribution technology has also been validated on a number of high-content screening platforms, including Cellomics' ArrayScan; GE Healthcare's IN Cell Analyzer; Evotec Technologies' Opera; BD Biosciences' Pathway HT; Molecular Devices' Discovery-1; and CompuCyte's iCyte.

Therefore, Fisher Biosciences may also take on additional revenues from customers who currently use Redistribution assays on any of the above technology platforms, which cover most commercially available HCS systems.

Haskins also said that although Redistribution hasn't been "officially" validated on Cellomics' other high-content screening platforms — the KineticScan and CellWorx — there is no reason the technologies could not be used together.

Plans for additional validation and assay development work on the ArrayScan appear to be in the works, as well. BioImage has traditionally done all of its assay development and drug-discovery services using GE Healthcare's IN Cell Analyzer, but "we're actually boxing up an ArrayScan to send it over there right now," Haskins said.

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

Relevant BioImage US Patents
US Patent Number Title
Date Awarded
5,958,713
Method of detecting biologically active substances by using green fluorescent protein
Sept. 28, 1999
6,172,188a
Fluorescent proteins
Jan. 9, 2001
6,518,021b
Method for extracting quantitative information relating to an influence on a cellular response
Feb. 11, 2003
6,566,083
Method of detecting biologically active substances
May 20,2003
6,780,599
Methods of detecting interactions between proteins, peptides, or libraries thereof using fusion proteins
Aug. 24, 2004
6,790,652
Method and apparatus for high-density format screening for bioactive molecules
Sept. 14, 2004
6,818,443
Fluorescent proteins
Nov. 16, 2004
7,001,986
Fluorescent proteins
Feb. 21, 2006
Source: US Patent and Trademark Office
a Sub-licensed to GE Healthcare as part of its "umbrella" GFP license
b Sub-licensed to Molecular Devices customers for Transfluor assay
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