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GE Healthcare, Defying Rumors That HCS Unit Is Not Core, Reveals Roadmap for Growing It


NISKAYUNA, NY — GE Healthcare plans to further develop the cellular analysis assets it inherited almost two years ago when it acquired Amersham Biosciences, the company said at a press event held at its global research center here last weekend.

Speaking to a panel of journalists before a special weekend-long cellular-analysis symposium, members of GE Healthcare's lead-discovery and global-research divisions said that the company had developed a "three-year roadmap" for cellular analysis that puts it on target for some specific goals by 2008, including the linkage of its cell-analysis, small-animal, and pre-clinical imaging capabilities.

In addition, GE Healthcare reiterated the areas that it sees as being particularly valuable in its quest to become the market leader for cellular analysis and high-content screening. These areas include developing next-generation high-content screening instrumentation, increased research and collaborations for RNAi; image analysis and informatics; and improved vectors for delivery of gene elements and other biologicals to living cells.

The company's apparent commitment to growing its cellular-analysis business also flies in the face of lingering rumors that the business has never been a part of GE's long-term plans.

"First and foremost, our goal is to maintain and grow our position in the cellular-analysis space. To do that, we've realized that we have to continue to invest in a number of different areas"

"First and foremost, our goal is to maintain and grow our position in the cellular-analysis space," John Anson, head of product development in GE Healthcare's lead discovery unit, told CBA News. "To do that, we've realized that we have to continue to invest in a number of different areas.

"In terms of where we want to get to, I think it's important to look at how we can bring together all the elements at our disposal, and in particular, how we can start to link cellular analysis with pre-clinical analysis," Anson added. "That is one of the major synergies that were brought to bear by the recent sort of coming together of GE Healthcare. To have an easy translation between events that are occurring at the level of the cell, and the relevance they have in pre-clinical animal imaging or pre-clinical analysis — I think that's a meaningful and realistic goal in three years' time."

So far, GE Healthcare has made a point of assembling a large and varied toolbox to complement the cellular-analysis tools it acquired from Amersham — primarily the IN Cell Analyzer 1000 and 3000, and Amersham's wide array of fluorescent dye and labeling technologies — and to establish itself as a primary market player in the high-content screening space.

For example, soon after the acquisition, GE Healthcare took over an initiative begun at Amersham to secure intellectual property surrounding green fluorescent protein, arguably the most widely used tool in live-cell analysis. Other commercial entities now wishing to use GFP for drug discovery must sub-license the appropriate IP from GE Healthcare (see CBA News, 6/15/2004).

In June 2004, GE licensed core IP from Cellomics that protects specific methods for high-content cellular analysis (see CBA News, 6/29/2004), and soon thereafter it struck another deal with Cellomics to design and market an interface that allows images and data generated by the IN Cell Analyzer to be mined, interpreted, and stored using Cellomics' high-content informatics software (see CBA News, 7/6/2004).

Then, in August 2004, GE Healthcare penned a deal with Toronto-based Microbix Biosystems to develop a suite of recombinant adenovirus vectors for delivering cell-based assay reagents using Microbix's AdMax technology (see CBA News, 8/3/2004).

Most recently, GE has been bringing RNAi into the fold, having inked a late 2004 agreement with Dharmacon to distribute its RNAi research products in Japan, as well as hammering out a possible agreement to co-market the IN Cell Analyzer with Dharmacon's RNAi reagents (although that deal has not been consummated, see CBA News, 5/23/2005).

This apparent commitment to growing its cellular-analysis business challenges rumors that have persisted over the past two years suggesting that the business has never been a part of GE's long-term plans.

Some industry insiders have speculated from the start that GE Healthcare's primary target in acquiring Amersham was its healthcare business, and that it would eventually jettison the biosciences arm, which, among other assets, included cellular analysis, protein separation and analysis, and gene expression (see 10/16/2003 issue of PGx Reporter, a CBA News sister publication).

More recently, insiders had been speculating that at the very least, the IN Cell Analyzer and associated technologies were moribund and likely not part of GE Healthcare's long-term plans (see CBA News, 6/27/2005).

"I think it's important to look at how we can bring together all the elements at our disposal, and in particular, how we can start to link cellular analysis with pre-clinical analysis"

Now, however, the company has many pieces in place to remain a contender in the cellular-analysis arena, as well as likely challenge its competitors for the top spot.

The only concrete time frame that GE Healthcare was willing to share was for the development of a panel of adenovirus vectors encoding specific gene elements with sensor technology such as GFP or other gene response elements like nitroreductase. GE Healthcare said that it plans to launch a panel of 100 adenoviral-based gene elements in fall of this year, although a spokesperson for the company noted that this will likely be a "tiered" launch.

"We've selected genes of interest quite carefully because we want to try and get as broad a coverage across key pathways as possible," Anson said. "We want to have key analysis points that are associated with cell membrane — for example, receptor activation; associated with what's going on in terms of signal transduction within the cytoplasm; and also associated with gene response elements.

"It's effectively delivering an assay into the cell," he added. "That's the unique proposition at the moment. An important thing about using something like adenovirus is that it does put the control back into the hands of the user, because they can dictate which cell line they choose to do their experiments in."

On the RNAi front, Anson declined to provide much detail about GE's interests going forward.

"Clearly RNAi is an incredible tool, and it fits in very well with downstream analysis using technologies like IN Cell," Anson said. "So … we're very interested in working with partners to continue to show the utility of this technology, and continue to link the technology with downstream analysis. It's certainly going to be something that we're going to continue to look at."

Lastly, Anson also said that image analysis remains a key immediate focus for building the HCS business.

"Image analysis — specifically, breaking down the images to numbers, is one of the most important aspects of this," Anson said at the press event. He later told CBA News that the company also has a roadmap for where it wants to take image analysis algorithm development.

In fact, GE Healthcare has already started down that road by collaborating with Harvard's Center for Neurodegeneration and Repair to co-develop new image analysis algorithms for the IN Cell 1000 (see CBA News, 8/8/2005).

Anson provided one specific example of how many of these technologies might come together to improve the speed of a specific popular high-content screening assay.

"A standard genotoxicity test involves looking at micronuclei, for example, aberrant formations of the nucleus," Anson said. "This is typically a very laborious process.

"Now, Cellomics has an automated application for this, but it still takes hours to do," he added. "The question is 'Can we run it in minutes rather than hours? Can we bring it further upstream in the drug-discovery process?' We're working on that right now."

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

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