Not resting on its laurels following its April acquisition of Amersham, GE Healthcare has made a series of strategic moves to quickly strengthen the presence of its biosciences unit in the high-content screening and drug discovery market.
The most recent of these came last Tuesday when HCS innovator Cellomics non-exclusively licensed its core HCS patent portfolio to GE Healthcare and granted rights to GE to sublicense the same technologies to pharmaceutical customers. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
This announcement followed on the heels of a deal two weeks ago, in which the $14 billion unit of GE announced that Bristol-Myers Squibb and Regeneron have signed licensing agreements with it for the rights to use GFP in their respective cell-based research programs (see Inside Bioassays, 6/15/2004). Amersham had been the keeper of those patents, which covered specific uses of one of the world’s most widely used cellular biology tools.
Cellomics has more than 30 patents relating to high-content screening, a concept that the company says it invented. This patent portfolio covers HCS technology, such as Cellomics’ ArrayScan HCS reader, as well as specific types of HCS assays. It is the latter that GE Healthcare was interested in, as a way to cover the bases when offering HCS solutions to its customers.
According to John Sutton, vice president of product management within GE Healthcare’s biosciences division, the patents broadly cover sub-cellular imaging methods that “can be turned into a screening or profiling tool with automated microscopy as opposed to manual.”
Sutton also broke down the patent portfolio as methods for “visualizing the movement of proteins or molecules within cells,” as well as methods to “translate seeing that movement into data,” which can then be compared between cells in different environments, such as those being treated by a drug candidate.
“The link for us is [that] because these are methods patents, customers who are running assays ... on GE’s platforms, are doing the sorts of things that are described in [the] patents,” he said.
“Our philosophy is that what we want to do is give customers freedom to practice,” Sutton added. “[We want] them to have … licenses when they purchase our products … and that means they’ve cleared that intellectual property.”
GE Healthcare has two major HCS platforms — the In Cell Analyzer 1000 and 3000, both of which came into GE’s portfolio after the Amersham acquisition (see Inside Bioassays, 4/7/2004). The In Cell 1000, according to Sutton, is designed more for “medium-throughput” applications, and is “aimed largely at assay development groups, but also at researchers within universities.” It is based on automated fluorescence microscopy utilizing epifluorescence illumination with a Xenon light source, and is the more affordable of the two. The In Cell 3000 is a laser-based automated confocal microscopy system and carries a much heftier price tag. It “is a much higher throughput instrument,” Sutton said, and “enables screeners to run up to [approximately] 60,000 samples per day.”
Sutton classified these systems as “legacy” instruments for Amersham, and although prior customers may have been technically infringing intellectual property when using the In Cell platforms for certain assays, Sutton said that this new license means this will no longer happen.
“As with all intellectual property, there are always debates about the relevance of it to what people are actually doing,” Sutton said. “There was never any question that customers were infringing, if you like. But there’s the issue that we always want to reassure customers that they are covered against certain intellectual property, and we’re now able to do that.”
Although at first glance one might question why Cellomics would license assay methods to a company that markets a “competitive” instrument on which those assays can be conducted, William Sharp, Cellomics’ vice president of business development, stressed that it is part of the company’s strategy to increase sales by making HCS as widely available as possible.
“In a broad sense, it’s Cellomics’ strategic intent to make HCS broadly available to the market,” Sharp said. “By licensing our HCS methods to GE Healthcare, we’re expanding the market for high-content screening technologies, for lack of a better term.”
Such a message was reiterated in an official statement by Cellomics’ president and CEO Daniel Calvo, and the company has announced several initiatives recently in support of such a strategy. For instance, in March, Cellomics announced that it would make available quality-assured used versions of its ArrayScan HCS reader, in an attempt to make the platform more affordable for academics that might use it for high-throughput functional genomics assays, as well as to encourage pharmaceutical customers to purchase multiple instruments (see Inside Bioassays, 4/7/2004).
The field of HCS has been quite active lately. Just before Cellomics and GE announced the licensing deal, Lansing Taylor, the founder of the company and current board member, announced on June 14 that he has co-founded (along with Carnegie Mellon professor Alan Waggoner) a biotech start-up called Cellumen that will focus on high-content screening (see inside story, this issue: Cellomics Founders Form HCS Company Cellumen; Latter to Be Customer of Former).
In addition, on Thursday Cellomics announced the hiring of Sharp, who most recently served as vice president of business development at Gentra Systems.
Although Sharp chose not to comment on the specific core intellectual property covered by the GE deal, he pointed to the official statement from the company, which cites assays such as cytoplasm-nuclear translocation, characterization of cellular toxicity, and receptor internalization.
In addition to these patents, Cellomics also owns intellectual property concerning its flagship instrument, the ArrayScan VTI HCS reader (it also markets the KineticScan HCS reader). The ArrayScan is a full HCS platform designed for “imaging any type of cell-based assay,” Sharp said. It is also based on an automated microscope that has confocal-like ability enabled by the Apotome optical sectioning technology marketed by Zeiss. The advantage of this is that researchers can obtain highly detailed images of cells without using laser illumination — a feature that keeps the ArrayScan’s price down. The ArrayScan also includes image analysis software and informatics solutions.
In December of last year, the company announced the opening of its Pittsburgh-based HCS center of excellence to offer education, training, and development initiatives, including a four-day HCS101 course Calvo called, “HCS boot camp.” (see GenomeWeb “high-throughput biology” series of columns, 12/8/2003).
And technology licensing is only one avenue of expansion that Cellomics is exploring, Sharp said. Other areas the company will be looking at include “collaborative development relationships to access complementary technologies, as well as joint marketing” relationships, he added.
Besides ongoing relationships with a number of pharmaceutical and biotech customers, Cellomics notably has partnerships with EMC and IBM for informatics and data storage, as well as RNAi firm Ambion.
It seems as if GE Healthcare buys into the “expanding the market” strategy, as well. “You always have a choice with intellectual property,” Sutton said, “as to whether you use it to lock out competitors, or whether you license it more broadly to enable customers to have choices. And I think Amersham and Cellomics have both been concentrating on giving the customers more choice, and I think that’s a good thing.”