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GE Distribution Deal for DiscoverX's cAMP Assays Boosts its GPCR Drug Discovery Play

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GE Healthcare will exclusively distribute DiscoverX's HitHunter cAMP enzyme fragment complementation-based assays worldwide, the companies said this week.

The deal also expands GE Healthcare's exclusive rights to market the rest of DiscoverX' HitHunter product portfolio to regions outside of North America and Europe, a DiscoverX executive said.

The deal is a significant marketing shot in the arm for DiscoverX's flagship product line, and it also allows DiscoverX to focus its resources more on scientific collaborations, R&D, and product development.

GE Healthcare, meantime, retains distribution rights to a product that rounds out its ever-expanding drug-screening portfolio and allows it to compete with other biology tool vendors — in particular PerkinElmer — offering high-throughput cAMP screening assays.

DiscoverX first entered into a distribution agreement for its HitHunter products with Amersham Biosciences in 2003, one year before GE Healthcare acquired Amersham. That agreement continued following the acquisition, but now, GE Healthcare is the exclusive provider of the cAMP assays, whereas before, DiscoverX and Amersham/GE Healthcare had both distributed the product.

"GE Healthcare is a well-recognized global provider of drug-discovery solutions … and has huge marketing and sales channels worldwide," Sailaja Kuchibhatla, senior vice president of business development for DiscoverX, told CBA News. "This allows the DiscoverX products — which are already well-established in North America and Europe — to be taken to a global basis. From that perspective, it's immediate global access for DiscoverX."


"GE would be interested because it gives them a strong play in the [cAMP] screening market and allows them to compete with PerkinElmer a little more aggressively."

Because DiscoverX is privately held and doesn't disclose revenues, it is unclear how many customers it has for its cAMP or other HitHunter assays. The company is based in Fremont, Calif., and employs about 40 people, with an additional sales and marketing office in Birmingham, UK, Kuchibhatla said.

The technology underlying DiscoverX's HitHunter products is enzyme fragment complementation chemiluminescent detection, which is based on an enzyme donor and acceptor molecule. Separately, the fragments are inactive, but when mixed they recombine to form active ß-galactosidase, which hydrolyzes a substrate that can be detected by a microplate reader.

Specifically, the HitHunter cAMP assay is used for cell-based screening of GPCR activation in a homogeneous, non-radioactive microtiter plate format. GE Healthcare, via Amersham, already had a well-established product for cAMP screening called the Biotrak cAMP scintillation proximity assay (SPA).

Therefore the DiscoverX technology gives GE Healthcare access to a non-radioactive cAMP screening technology to complement the SPA. According to Kuchibhatla, however, the market is "generally moving toward a non-radioactive format." There is also synergy with one of GE Healthcare's instruments, the LeadSeeker, which was an Amersham legacy instrument and can be used to read HitHunter assays.

It is unclear exactly how big the overall market is for cAMP screening assays, since it is only one of several methods used in high-throughput cell-based GPCR screening. It is known as a second messenger assay for measuring GPCR activation, and is one of the more popular methods along with direct measures of GPCR activation, such as calcium ion screens. Both methods have their proponents in the high-throughput screening community.

PerkinElmer offers perhaps the widest array of products for cAMP screening. These include its LANCE cAMP FRET-based assay; FlashPlate radioactive cAMP screening kit; cAMPFire fluorescence polarization immunoassay for ViewLux instrumentation; and DELFIA cAMP immunofluorimetric kit.

"Now you really have the two large screening companies in the marketplace having access to these technologies," Kuchibhatla said. "That is another reason GE would be interested, because it gives them a strong play in the [cAMP] screening market, and allows them to compete with PerkinElmer a little more aggressively."

Other well-known cAMP screening assays on the market include Molecular Devices' CatchPoint cAMP assay, which uses a competitive immunoassay format; Applied Biosystems' cAMP-Screen immunoassays; and French firm Cisbio's HTRF-based cAMP assays. It is notable that Molecular Devices has a much stronger play, and perhaps the strongest of any company, in calcium-based GPCR screening with its FLIPR line of reagents and plate readers.

Another important part of the deal for DiscoverX is that it takes pressure off of the company on the marketing and distribution front, and allows it to focus more heavily on collaborations and R&D to develop new versions of the HitHunter technology, Kuchibhatla said.

One recent example disclosed by the company in November (see CBA News, 11/7/2005), is a scientific collaboration with University of Toronto researcher Brian O'Dowd and his start-up company PatoBios, which is attempting to market an assay called the "multipurpose original cellular assay," or MOCA, for screening GPCRs, particularly orphan receptors.

The National Institutes of Health's Chemical Genomics Center has also been evaluating PathHunter as a tool to screen specific targets of interest for the Molecular Libraries Roadmap Initiative, a project that will likely necessitate further scientific collaboration from DiscoverX (see CBA News, 11/7/2005).

"Generally, DiscoverX has been selling the HitHunter cAMP product for about four years now," she said. "Now, by having GE support it, one of the things it allows us to do is start getting into some of these newer technologies, and spend our time on commercializing those — technologies like Brian O'Dowd's, that play towards our PathHunter product line. In general, this allows us to spend more time commercializing and developing novel assay formats for more cell-based assays."

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])