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GE Healthcare and Dharmacon Set to Co-Market HCS Platform, RNAi Reagents

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Dharmacon and GE Healthcare are in the final stages of hammering out a deal that could see Dharmacon's siRNA products marketed in combination with GE Healthcare's high-content screening technology, Cell-Based Assay News' sister publication RNAi News has learned.

The exact timing of the deal is unclear. However, the companies might be ready to launch a product for cell cycle analysis as soon as in the "next few weeks," according to Robert Graves, a GE senior scientist for bioassays support. He spoke with RNAi News at the Cambridge Healthtech Institute's RNAi for Pathway Analysis meeting in Boston last week.

GE Healthcare is already the exclusive distributor of Dharmacon's RNAi research products in Japan. Furthermore, the two companies have been engaged in an informal research collaboration. According to RNAi News, Bill Marshall, executive vice president of research and operations and Dharmacon site manager, said the firms are now in discussions about a formal partnership to market the technology on which this collaboration is based.

Marshall declined to provide additional details because the companies are "working through commercial terms."

A GE Healthcare spokesperson last week confirmed that the company was involved in an R&D collaboration with Dharmacon, but declined to provide any further details.

Regarding past research efforts, Marshall said the companies have been working together to examine the efficacy of using Dharmacon's siRNAs to target genes involved in the cell cycle in combination with GE's G1/S and G2M cell cycle phase marker assays. Results are analyzed using GE's IN Cell confocal microscopy instrumentation and algorithms.

Aside from using single and pooled siRNA sets, the companies have also conducted experiments using Dharmacon's reverse-transfection format, which comprises collections of siRNAs, as well as positive and negative controls, dehydrated onto 96-well plates, Marshall noted.

"It's a conjunction of both the stable cell line products that we've been developing" and RNAi products from Dharmacon, Graves told RNAi News. "This type of biology is going to be very useful for basic research into cell cycle analysis and characterization of gene products, but possibly equally [in] drug discovery for cell cycle-related targets."

Marshall said that the greatest utility for the technology is in studying cancer biology, but added that Dharmacon is very interested in broadening it by using siRNAs against a wider variety of genes.

Marshall said that the data from Dharmacon and GE's experiments thus far has been positive, and has been presented at a number of scientific meetings as a way to demonstrate to the scientific community what can be done with the two companies' technologies. He characterized the work as "a teaching exercise," and said that results have been obtained with "very high reproducibility."

GE and Dharmacon are "getting the … outcomes that you'd expect to see," he said.

Rumors of an official partnership between Dharmacon and GE Healthcare have apparently been circulating in the biotech sector for some time. According to Judy Masucci, director of marketing at Cellomics, her company has been aware of an informal relationship between Dharmacon and GE Healthcare aside from their exclusive distribution deal, and it has recently become clearer that the companies are "really formalizing it."

Cellomics — like many companies involved in HCS — also has a strong interest in combining its ArrayScan series of HCS plate readers with RNAi methods. To wit, Cellomics has been engaged in what Masucci termed an "informal" relationship with Dharmacon competitor Ambion for some time.

Although Cellomics and Ambion have not hinted that they are pursuing a more formal relationship, scientists from the two companies have co-presented data at multiple scientific meetings, published papers together, and even jointly sponsored workshops about combining the technologies.

However, Masucci said that Cellomics has not pursued an alliance — formal or informal — with Dharmacon "mostly because of [Dharmacon's] collaboration with GE," but that Cellomics customers, to her knowledge, still use siRNA reagents from the company.

"We have a lot of customers who are using HCS to further their RNAi work," Masucci said. "We have customers who are using Ambion siRNAs, and we have customers who are using Dharmacon siRNA's; so really, the supplier of the siRNAs really doesn't make a difference.

"It's about the benefit that high-content screening brings, because it allows you to do all the really in-depth phenotypic screening of siRNAs to qualify its effects that you can't really get with a plate reader, a Western blot assay, or a traditional assay," she added. "The benefit is really showing the power of the two technologies together. Separately they have their own advantages, but when you put them together, you get so much more from each one."

If GE Healthcare and Dharmacon nail down an exclusive co-marketing agreement, it would possibly provide a round-about financial benefit to Cellomics due mainly to its past work with GE Healthcare in interfacing the IN Cell Analyzers with Cellomics' high-content screening image analysis and data management offerings (see CBA News, 7/6/2004).

"Certainly customers using siRNAs can use any HCS platform, but the real trick to using HCS is having the ability to manage all of that data," Masucci said. "So the benefit of Dharmacon and GE working together is that GE has also worked with Cellomics, and it has the back end capabilities to be able to manage all of that data.

"Now that we're able to offer the benefit of our informatics and data management to GE customers … if Dharmacon and a GE customer are working with a joint customer, that customer also has access to Cellomics' informatics," she said.

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

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