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Hamamatsu, Best Known in US as Component Maker, Seeks Niche for Cellular Imaging System

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ORLANDO, Fla. — If you can make all the parts to a machine, it stands to reason that you can make a pretty good machine as well.

Such is the philosophy that Hamamatsu, one of the world’s most well-known names in photonics-related components, is banking on as it continues its relatively recent foray — at least in the US — into the drug discovery field.

The company, based in Hamamatsu City, Japan, was showing off the FDSS (Functional Drug Screening System), its imaging-based plate reader for high-throughput cell-based assays and assay development at the Society for Biomolecular Screening meeting held here two weeks ago. And judging by the amount of traffic at the company’s exhibit booth, drug discovery researchers are interested.

It is safe to say that Hamamatsu is best known in the US as a manufacturer of many of the components crucial to imaging systems, whether they are high-end confocal-based plate scanners or laboratory-grade research instruments. In fact, many high-content or high-throughput scanners used in drug discovery have Hamamatsu parts, such as photomultiplier tubes, CCD cameras, and lasers.

But the company also has a “systems” business, and markets products running the gamut from medical imagers to laboratory research platforms. Shouming Du, Hamamatsu’s product manager for the FDSS, said that this business — and the FDSS, in particular — is extremely profitable in the company’s homeland, but that Hamamatsu would like to expand the business to the US and European markets.

“The FDSS has been used in drug discovery for the last six or seven years in Japan,” Du told Inside Bioassays. “In fact, in Japan, we dominate the market.”

According to Du, the 2000 was the first FDSS model, and Hamamatsu has been making minor upgrades to the base technology over the past few years. The current version of the instrument, the FDSS 6000, was first introduced in the US at last year’s SBS conference. Du said that SBS is currently the only US-based conference at which the company shows off the screening instrument.

The FDSS is a CCD camera-based plate reader that uses xenon lamp excitation and a variety of excitation and emission filters for imaging multiple fluorophores, and, in some cases, for performing FRET-based assays. It can accommodate 96- or 384-well plates, Du said, and has an optional cell-dispensing unit. It also comes with a data-processing unit with appropriate software designed by the company.

Although image analysis software would not be considered Hamamatsu’s forte, Du said that it is rather uncomplicated because the resulting images detect fluorescent signals from entire wells, rather than individual cells.

Du said that the FDSS is intended to be used “mostly for GPCR assays, as well as for ion channels, where it is limited to calcium assays.”

The instrument’s capabilities echo that of several plate readers on the market, but Du sees one major competitor outside of Japan: FLIPR. “In the US and Europe, Molecular Devices is undoubtedly our main competitor,” he said.

Molecular Devices’ FLIPR (Fluorescene Imaging Plate Reader) has also been around for several years, and the company introduced its newest model, FLIPR Tetra, earlier this year. At that time, Stephen Oldfield, MD’s vice president of worldwide marketing, agreed with Du — at least to some extent — telling Inside Bioassays that the FDSS was FLIPR’s main competitor, but that FLIPR dominated the market to the extent that many of the calcium and membrane potential assays performed on the instrument are often referred to as FLIPR assays. (See Inside Bioassays, 6/8/2004).

Last week, Jennifer McKie, product manager for FLIPR Tetra, disagreed with Du’s assessment of Hamamatsu’s competitive edge in Japan. “I think we’re quite neck-in-neck competitive in Japan,” McKie said. “We’ve been active in Japan for a while now, and we’re actively selling instruments to the market. Realistically, we have about an equal amount of FLIPRs installed there.”

Head to head, the instruments have a lot of similarities in their imaging capabilities. In fact, it may be that each has only one major advantage over the other: The FDSS’ UV-dye readiness trumps the FLIPR for the time being, but the FLIPR, because it accommodates 1,536-well plates, is currently ahead in the throughput race.

McKie noted that Molecular Devices is planning to add UV capabilities “with a 400 nm LED, at the top of the UV, and then we’ll be adding even lower [wavelengths].” She also said that the company did not have a timetable for this upgrade.

There is a third fledgling competitor on the market manufactured by a not-so-fledgling instrument maker: the ImageTrak from PerkinElmer. Also designed primarily for ion channel and GPCR assays, the ImageTrak doesn’t yet have the market penetration shared by the Hamamatsu and Molecular Devices machines, but it is making strides. In May, PerkinElmer announced an agreement with Australian biotech firm Bionomics in which Bionomics will screen ion channel and GPCR targets on the ImageTrak — a deal that PerkinElmer expects to drive instrument sales in Australia and the Pacific Rim. (See Inside Bioassays, 5/18/2004).

Neither Molecular Devices nor Hamamatsu have divulged the list price of their instruments, but it’s fair to say that they are intended for higher-end drug discovery applications, and are thus priced accordingly for the drug discovery or pharmaceutical company. PerkinElmer’s ImageTrak checked in at around $450,000, the company said in May.

To be sure, Du said that the market is changing in such a way that academic institutions are now joining the potential pool of customers. “With the recent NIH roadmap initiatives [see Inside Bioassays, 7/27/2004], we see more and more academics moving into this area of high-throughput drug discovery,” he said. He added that Hamamatsu has already scored a major academic customer in the US — Vanderbilt University — and is mining for more.

Du also said that Greg Monteith, a prominent researcher who studies calcium ion channels at Australia’s University of Queensland, has been collecting data from Hamamatsu that is expected to supplement a pending review article discussing the application of such plate readers in academic drug discovery. Monteith could not be reached for comment in time for this publication.

As far as Hamamatsu’s quest to sell more systems to European and US biotechs and pharmas, Du said that European customers include Euroscreen and Syngenta, while US customers include Johnson & Johnson, Cephalon, and, most recently, “another small biotech company in Boston.”

—BB

 

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