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Hamamatsu Continues to Seek Foothold Outside of Japan for HT Screening Tech


This article has been updated from a previous version, which incorrectly stated that SciClone Pharmaceuticals is a customer of the Hamamatsu FDSS 6000.

PHILADELPHIA — Japanese photonics component and instrumentation maker Hamamatsu is "making progress" in its attempt to gain US and European market penetration for its Functional Drug Screening System 6000, a high-throughput plate reader for multiple cell-based assay applications, a company official told CBA News at the World Pharmaceutical Congress held here last week.

Shouming Du, Hamamatsu's US-based FDSS product manager, also told CBA News that the company recently released a high-content imaging system based on the FDSS platform called IMACS (Imaging Cell-Sorting System) in Japan, and has already sold several units in that country. Hamamatsu has no immediate plans to market the instrument in the US or Europe, he said.

"It launched about six months ago in Japan, and we've sold quite a few units already," Du said. "However, we haven't launched in Europe or US yet. A typical strategy for Hamamatsu is like car [manufacturing]. You make a car, you troubleshoot, you get rid of all the bugs, and you perfect it before it goes into the US or European market. So Hamamatsu doesn't want to rush into this area."

In the meantime, Hamamatsu's system products division, out of which the FDSS and IMACS are sold, continues its quest to sell more FDSS units in the US. Du noted in September that this was a definite short-term goal (see CBA News, 9/28/2004 in the firm's effort to steal a chunk of the market from FLIPR, Molecular Devices' plate reader that is the FDSS' main worldwide competitor.

Hamamatsu trades on the Tokyo Stock Exchange First Section, and has three primary business units: 'opto-electronic devices,' which includes photomultiplier tubes, optical semiconductors, and light sources; 'imaging and measurement instruments,' (also called 'system products') which includes the drug-discovery platforms, as well as a few medical instruments; and 'other,' which includes photosensitizer R&D and hotel operations, among other things.

Hamamatsu introduced the FDSS instrument to the US at the Society for Biomolecular Screening annual conference in 2003 and, according to Du, the company has sold eight units in the country to date. US customers include Vanderbilt University, Johnson & Johnson, Cephalon, and Hydra Biosciences.

Du said that the price range for an FDSS 6000 is $350,000 to $750,000, depending on the features. This means that, based on its eight US customers, the company has thus far generated between $2.8 million and $6 million in revenues from the FDSS in the US in the company's last two fiscal years, which end on Sept. 30.

As far as European sales, Du declined to provide an exact figure, but noted that they were comparable to US sales. Customers on that continent include Aventis and Lundbeck.

According to Hamamatsu's most recent year-end financial results, for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2004, Hamamatsu's three business segments recorded net sales of ¥71.1 billion ($659 million), with imaging and measurement instruments contributing about ¥12 billion ($111 million).

Considering an estimated $2.8 million to $6 million in revenues generated in the US and Europe for one year, these sales contributed somewhere between 2.5 percent and 5.4 percent to the bottom line of the imaging and measurement instruments division's bottom line. Even though Hamamatsu did not break out specific product sales in Japan in its financial report, Du said in September that the FDSS and other related instruments are much bigger sellers for Hamamatsu in its home country.

Chasing Molecular Devices

"The systems division is doing very well in Japan, because Hamamatsu is a trusted name there," Du said. "It's going very well in the US, though. We introduced this instrument two years ago, and we're on target. But of course, you can imagine the pressure is still there, since Molecular Devices also launched their new instrument" — the FLIPR Tetra. "But we feel very good," he added.

Hamamatsu likely still has a ways to go in the US and Europe in stealing market share from Molecular Devices. Beside the fact that FLIPR has been around much longer, the company also owns several compatible assay reagents, constituting the type of complete package that many drug researchers seek.

Du said that Hamamatsu would "certainly" eventually like to partner with reagent companies or acquire licenses to compatible assay reagents, "but we've got to do it step by step.

"Ultimately that's a goal," he said. "We want to offer some reagents to go together with our instrument. But as with any other company — what's your priority? Our strength is instrumentation and engineering, so we want to make that perfect, and then we will line up with other companies and get reagents done."

There may be an opportunity, Du believes, for interested parties to develop unique fluorescent dyes that would take advantage of the FDSS' ability to excite in the UV range.

"In the old days, when FLIPR dominated the market, it used lasers," Du said. "So whatever fluorescent dye you used, you had to be able to excite it at 480 nm. Now, if you don't use a laser — and we use a xenon lamp — you can excite from 340 to 500 nm, meaning you can use whatever dye you want.

"So it provides opportunity for a dye company like Molecular Probes to work on some fluorescent dyes," he added. "Particularly … there are no good fluorescent dyes for chloride channels. If someone can develop this, you could run HTS screening to fish out a molecule that binds to chloride and will generate fluorescence. The key is now that the reagents should not be limited to the 480 nm excitation."

FLIPR Tetra no longer uses a single laser, instead opting for banks of LEDs, but Molecular Devices hasn't yet equipped the instrument with UV capabilities. In September, Jennifer McKie, Molecular Devices' FLIPR Tetra product manager, told CBA News that the company would be planning such an addition, but had no timetable.

Finally, Du thinks that the FDSS may have a unique capability due to what he calls a shorter interval — the rate at which the instrument can collect data — than any of its competitors.

"Traditionally, people will collect data every second," he said. "However, now we can get the number down to 70 milliseconds."

No one has yet validated the significance of this feature, which Du said may be useful for assaying very quick-changing ion channels.

"It … might not be [significant] — we don't really have any data to support our claim," he said. "But at least in principle, it could be very useful for channel assays. For some of the very fast channels, if you can get down to that range, you might be able to do high-throughput screening that is not available now."

"There are many other features to the FDSS, but to me, this is worth noting and mentioning," Du added. "[While] it's not breakthrough, it might make people stop and think about it."

Du added that one of Hamamatsu's customers is currently conducting research investigating the significance of this capability.

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

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