The field of cell-based assays, particularly cellular imaging, is on the upswing — from a tool most frequently found in basic biology laboratories to a large-scale industrial tool for drug discovery.
But as the cellular analysis sector takes off, will the equivalent of “Mom and Pop” shops be left behind?
A prime example of a company trying to avoid such a fate is French instrumentation manufacturer Imstar. Last week, Imstar executives told Inside Bioassays that the company has admittedly struggled to find a foothold in the drug-discovery business, but is taking steps — such as seeking a partnership, or even a merger, with a larger company and increasing its presence in the diagnostic market — to garner greater overall prominence in the industry.
“We are moving to increase drastically in the coming two or three years in diagnostics,” Michel Soussaline, general manager at Imstar, said. “Drug discovery will also increase — though not as drastically because there are not so many [players] — and [our focus on] academic labs will likely decrease.
“What we really expect, and are working on, is to find a product partnership with a big company that is interested in integrating our know-how into their product line or their technology,” Soussaline added. “The time is really good for integrated solutions both in pharma and diagnostics. A small company could not afford a large presence when the market was really demanding [a few years ago].”
Though Soussaline declined to identify possible partnership or merger candidates, he said that he expects it would be an instrumentation maker, likely based in the US “because that’s where 90 percent of these companies are located.”
Founded in 1985, Imstar is literally a “Mom and Pop” shop, a family-run operation with just a few dozen employees that for the past 20 years has been making cellular analysis platforms geared toward the basic research and pathology, and more recently, drug-discovery markets.
Despite having several full and mature platforms with capabilities at least comparable to those of some of the current bigger players in the cellular analysis market, Imstar has been conspicuously absent from the drug-discovery news cycle and important drug-discovery events over the past two years.
All of Imstar’s products, regardless of the market for which they are intended, are based on a basic imaging cytometry platform that the company calls Pathfinder. This core technology is a non-laser-based automated imaging platform that the company said was originally developed for cytogenetic applications such as karyotyping and fluorescence in situ hybridization.
However, as new cell biology applications became all the rage in both academia and pharma, Imstar chose not to reinvent the wheel, and has tweaked its core platform in several ways to develop instruments specifically for those applications.
According to Soussaline, Imstar’s CellScan and WellScan products are the biggest revenue generators for the company right now. Although these products are suitable for both image-based cellular assays and diagnostics, the latter still is the most lucrative — especially for applications such as analyzing tumor markets from tissue samples for cancer staging.
“Diagnostics has increased [for us] since last year, and probably will continue to increase,” Soussaline said. This would be for therapeutic staging in cancer, for instance. Its main competitors in this area are US firms Applied Imaging and ChromaVision, each of which is pure-play in this area.
Imstar also markets the MetaScan, which is most similar to its original technology and is used for metaphase detection and analysis, and ploidy analysis; and MorphoScan, which is primarily for performing morphological characterization of cells and immunohistochemical studies on histology samples.
“We know no one who bet on this market 15 years ago and started to develop things equivalent to the Pathfinder engine for the long term,” Soussaline said. “That’s something that we’ve achieved, but even when we started to get customers that wanted real innovation, we haven’t moved outside this area for a few reasons.
“First, we are a small company, and have limited resources,” he said. “The second reason was that the market was not really ready. And the third reason, and maybe the most important, is that it’s important not to move out of the bush too early, especially when you’re young, because the big one will kill you.”
Soussaline’s analogy refers to the state of the image-based cellular analysis arena just three or four years ago, when the only major players were companies such as Cellomics, Amersham (now GE Healthcare), and Evotec — competitors that Soussaline referred to by name. These companies all had sufficient resources to tackle an area of biotechnology that big pharma was not yet buying into; at least, not with the frequency it is now.
“Now we can move out more easily, because we can compete well with bigger companies that pretend to have good systems,” Soussaline said. “We will be more and more visible; but we are doing this at our own rate. We consider the best publicity to be the satisfaction of the customers who have a real proven product, and who really use it.
“When you consider competition like Cellomics, Evotec, and [GE Healthcare], we know several customers here who have one of those products but it’s just not working,” he added. “It’s for validation, testing, but it’s not something that is in use on a regular basis.”
Soussaline declined to provide the identity of a customer that has provided such negative reviews for competing products.
Imstar is equally secretive about its own customers’ identities. “Right now we’re in the phase where we’ve signed several customers that we haven’t yet announced,” said Khuong Truong, head of Imstar’s scientific marketing department. The only customer Truong chose to disclose to Inside Bioassays was French drug maker Servier, which he said has recently purchased one of Imstar’s platforms for gene-toxicity testing.
Perhaps the biggest divergence Imstar has made thus far from its static product line is the Optical Scan Array (OSA), an instrument for array-based assays that the company introduced early last year. Though still based on the Pathfinder core technology, the OSA was created in response to Imstar’s perception that the market is also changing towards desiring integrated instrumentation platforms.
The OSA can simultaneously acquire up to four fluorescent dyes in the visible light range at resolutions down to 0.34 millimeters, according to the company’s website. Imstar said that the OSA may be used for analysis, quantitation, and interpretation of data obtained on DNA microarray images, as well as for cellular array images.
“We’re now the only company providing the same instrument for two different biological approaches,” said Truong. “That’s what people are asking us more and more to do: to sell the same instrument where you can do one assay on a microtiter plate, and once it has been validated, you go down to the microarray level, which saves you reagents and time, and you still have the same quality results.”
Truong said that the first OSA was installed six months ago in an undisclosed pharmaceutical company laboratory. He added that Imstar expects to have several more systems installed this year.
As for the Imstar’s stated intention of finding a technology partner, Soussaline said that the company is exploring several avenues.
“It could be licensing, it could be merging,” Soussaline said. “There are different possibilities, and we’ll keep an open mind.”