SAN FRANCISCO – GE Healthcare plans to beef up its high-content screening and analysis offerings this year with new high-content imaging software, a data-storage and -management collaboration with EMC, and the introduction of assay-ready cell lines for high-throughput and high-content screening, a company official told CBA News this week.
The new software features will allow GE Healthcare to keep up with and, in some cases, preempt similar moves by HCS rivals Cellomics and Molecular Devices. Meantime, the impending reagent offerings — a relatively new venture for the company — will put it squarely in competition with industry giant Invitrogen.
In an interview with CBA News at Cambridge Healthtech Institute’s High-Content Analysis conference held here this week, Ger Brophy, general manager of discovery sciences for GE Healthcare, said that the company is “putting a huge amount of investment and development” into its high-content analysis products, particularly in the area of software and “wetware,” or reagents.
“It’s almost a sequential cycle for us,” Brophy said. “We’ve done good work on the hardware, and we’re taking that back now to the research stage to begin that cycle again. You see us focusing a lot on the software at the moment. With the next turn of the wheel, you’re going to see a lot more around the wetware based on the provision of cells and assay technology.”
All of GE’s upcoming developments revolve around its IN Cell 1000 and 3000 high-content imaging platforms and IN Cell Investigator software. First and foremost, the company is planning to upgrade its image- and data-analysis software in three major areas: more intuitive data analysis through a new clustering module; live-cell tracking capabilities; and faster processing speeds.
The first area — more intuitive data analysis — is in line with a recent trend by high-content screening vendors to make it easier for customers to work with the enormous volumes of data generated as a result of analyzing thousands of cellular images. Cellomics has long emphasized this capability, even before it was acquired by Thermo Fisher.
More recently, Molecular Devices introduced a new version of its AcuityXpress data-analysis software sporting features for improved hierarchical and non-hierarchical data clustering (see CBA News, 12/15/2006); while platform-independent data-analysis software vendor Genedata has forged collaborations with Evotec Technologies and Cellomics.
GE’s improved data-analysis software features decision tree analysis, which enables users to “tease apart relevant and statistically significant populations.” Brophy said. “You actually do that live just by moving nodes around in a very [graphical user interface]-type fashion. We see populations begin to come into focus and emerge, and you can start making some inferences around that.”
The second software improvement, the addition of cell-tracking capabilities, is another hot area of high-content analysis, and one that Brophy said has been difficult to develop for various reasons.
“For the longest time, people have asked for cell tracking, and for the longest time, it’s been desperately hard, because cells change,” he said. “They change in intensity, they go and divide, some of them go and die, and some of them move out [of the image].”
To wit, scientists from the University of Manchester in the UK very recently developed freeware called CellTracker primarily because of the relative dearth of cell-tracking capabilities in commercial image-analysis software (see CBA News, 1/19/2007, 1/19/2007).
Lastly, GE has increased the processing speed of its image-analysis platform by taking advantage of multi-core central processing units. “I think we’re targeting something like 60 percent faster processing speed in terms of data analysis being enabled by [IN Cell] Investigator [by] essentially farming out individual tasks to different processors in a dynamic fashion,” Brophy said.
All of these improvements will be rolled out in the current quarter, Brophy said. He also said that many of the features are being added in response to what GE sees as a sea change in the high-content analysis market.
“Some years ago there may have been an intuitive understanding that high-content screening would be used in pharma and biotech for developing drugs, and so it is,” Brophy said. “But realistically, we are seeing people who previously would have looked down a microscope and [now] actually want to do industrialized, automated microscopy. And if you can, why wouldn’t you want to do something like that?”
Many of these researchers are interested in applying these capabilities to long-term, live-cell assays. “These are what we call functional biologists, and we’re seeing that emerge as a very big and exciting segment for us,” Brophy said. “Although our heartland from our screening days at Amersham was in pharma and biotech, we’re paying a lot of attention to large biotechs and academic centers of excellence who want to do massively parallel experimentation to understand basic biology.”
So Much Data, So Little Storage
Another pending initiative by GE is a collaboration with storage firm EMC, a move the company hasn’t officially announced.
The aim of this collaboration is to provide IN Cell Analyzer customers with data-storage and data-management capabilities from a well-known and trusted IT vendor.
Brophy called the partnership a “great opportunity” to apply EMC’s general-purpose IT solution in the high-content screening market.
“Although our heartland from our screening days at Amersham was in pharma and biotech, we’re paying a lot of attention to large biotechs and academic centers of excellence who want to do massively parallel experimentation to understand basic biology.”
“[The] question about needing terabytes of storage space on servers [is] the least of it. Archiving is fine, but it’s not write-only memory,” he said. “You’ve actually got to take that out and interrogate it freshly.”
Brophy noted that EMC’s technology will make that possible and will be “a major focus” for the company. “We’ll be rolling out the details of that in the first half, and that’s as much as I can say now.”
Cellomics has for a few years used EMC’s capabilities to provide its customers with data-storage and data-management in the form of the Cellomics Store product (see CBA News 4/27/2004).
“We’ve even utilized [Cellomics Store],” Brophy said. “We’ve been open with Cellomics in that regard. That works fine, and is a good product. … The advantage to us is … [that] EMC is a giant, and it’s already well-settled in many pharma and biotech IT departments.”
Overall, Brophy said, the EMC storage partnership and image-analysis software changes are a result of GE “putting a huge amount of investment and development into the software. Where we can, we’re doing it ourselves; and where we can’t, where [instead] we can reach out and collaborate with people, that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
The last initiative Brophy spoke of will represent a relatively new market for GE Healthcare: the provision of bulk assay-ready cells for high-throughput and high-content screening.
“We see that we have an opportunity to provide, in the first instance, cells; but arguably more importantly, assay technology embodied within cells to pharma, biotech, and academic customers,” Brophy said. “GE is good at quality control, regulation processes, six sigma, so we can provide cells that are assay-ready. We see this being utilized both in ordinary HT screening; but also in the high-content screening environment.
“I know companies like The Automation Partnership in the UK and others have thought about this a lot,” he added. “People often can’t do cell assays on a Monday because you’ve got to crank up the cells for use. So increasingly, we’re seeing an opportunity to actually provide the cells that are almost ready to go for these types of companies, and if we can do the vertical integration of the assay technology into those cells, then it’s to everybody’s benefit.”
Such an offering would put GE Healthcare squarely in competition with some of the legacy Fisher units of Thermo Fisher and, more particularly, Invitrogen, which last year acquired Sentigen's Tango assay system and division-arrested Assay Ready Cells to bolster its GPCR assay-development capabilities and ability to convert live-cell assays into ready-to-use consumable products.
“Invitrogen bought that exactly for the ability to really integrate itself into the customer workflow,” Brophy said. “For us, I think we drive off our IN Cell platform.” In addition, Brophy said he thinks GE Healthcare already has a strong position in high-throughput screening through Amersham’s legacy scintillation proximity assay, as well as GE’s recently announced collaboration with DiscoverX, in which it will distribute DiscoverX’s HitHunter cAMP assay products.
“That’s a great platform to drive off of to access that market,” Brophy said.