MDS instruments division MDS Sciex this week said that Japanese scientific product distributor Scrum will distribute its CellKey label-free cellular analysis instrument in Japan.
The distribution agreement is the first of its kind for MDS Sciex, which has direct sales channels only in North America and Europe. The deal could also enable the company to act on what it believes is a growing Japanese demand for CellKey, which also happens to be MDS Sciex’s first cellular-analysis product.
Simon Pitchford, vice president of marketing, sales, and service at MDS Sciex, told CBA News this week that the company has seen an increased interest in the product from the region’s drug-discovery market, although it does not yet have a customer for CellKey in Japan.
“We certainly had appreciable interest that we had gained from various sources,” Pitchford said. “We knew there was strong interest in Japan, and one of the reasons for doing this was to ensure we had appropriate coverage in that region.”
Established in 1996, Scrum specializes in marketing foreign scientific products, particularly laboratory instrumentation. Based in Tokyo, the firm distributes incubators, cell counters, cell cloning instrumentation, liquid handlers, spectrophotometers, 2D electrophoresis instrumentation, and hybridization ovens, according to its website.
Scrum counts among its clients Genevac, Genetix, Innovatis, Matrix Technologies, Nanodrop Technologies, NextGen Sciences, and SciGene.
CellKey is a label-free cellular analysis platform based on a technique called cellular dielectric spectroscopy, in which cells are grown on electrodes embedded in microwell plates and exposed to a constant low-level voltage. The instrument senses electrical impedance flux resulting from changes in cell morphology, confluence, adherence, and interactions.
The platform has numerous potential applications, according to the company, but MDS Sciex seems to be focusing its attention on using the platform for secondary screening of GPCR drug targets in living cells. Various scientific posters and presentations at multiple recent conferences by both MDS Sciex and CellKey customers have shown favorable data in support of such an application.
Most recently, at the Society for Biomolecular Sciences conference in Seattle, scientists from Boehringer-Ingleheim, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca presented positive data from GPCR pharmacological studies using CellKey. Pitchford said that Serono has also presented data from CellKey.
MDS Sciex does not disclose the identities of CellKey customers besides those who have chosen to make public presentations on the technology, and it does not divulge sales figures for the product, Pitchford said. But, he added, MDS Sciex said that the willingness of customers to share their data represents CellKey’s market penetration thus far.
“The excitement that the product has generated has been huge,” Pitchford said. “It’s rare to find people to talk about their findings on an instrument as readily as some of our users have.
“As evidenced at SBS, the whole movement toward label-free approaches [to cellular analysis] is gathering momentum, and we’ve been somewhat at the forefront of that,” he added. “The public presentation of data speaks volumes. There are always challenges, but we’re getting good adoption of the technology.”
Taking into account only the aforementioned four pharmaceutical customers, and using the $375,000 list price for CellKey, MDS Sciex has generated at least $1.5 million in revenues from the product in its first year of existence.
Pitchford said the positive feedback has served to further the overall idea of using electrical impedance as the basis for a label-free cellular analysis instrument, but has clearly been a boon for MDS Sciex in particular. Smaller competitors such as Acea Biosciences and Applied Biophysics have not established the same foothold for products also based on electrical impedance, even though those products have both been around longer.
“I think the use of this type of measurement scheme is growing in its acceptance,” Pitchford said. “Collectively we’re all producing data that goes toward validation of the technique in its various formats.”
“As evidenced at SBS, the whole movement toward label-free approaches [to cellular analysis] is gathering momentum, and we’ve been somewhat at the forefront of that.”
MDS Sciex also has the advantage of being able to leverage sister company MDS Pharma Services, which has incorporated CellKey into its drug-discovery services. This set-up enables MDS Pharma to continue to validate the product through contractual research services.
In fact, as MDS Sciex begins to emerge as the market leader for this particular type of product, its biggest competitors may be companies that make instruments using other techniques for label-free cellular analysis. One such potential rival is Corning, which at SBS launched its first label-free cellular analysis instrument, based on resonant waveguide optics.
Other than being Sciex’s first cellular analysis product, CellKey represents the company’s first real departure from its traditional bread-and-butter mass spectrometry instrumentation line – but it may not be its last, Pitchford said.
“Obviously we are beginning to grow this part of the business, and we’ll continue to look for opportunities to grow within drug discovery with this platform and others as they develop,” he said. “Clearly Sciex has made a presence in this space, and we will try to continue to do that.”
Furthermore, the company may look to further expand its worldwide sales and marketing reach, either through distribution partnerships or physical expansion of the company.
“As an organization we are continually looking to grow and expand our coverage throughout the world, essentially,” Pitchford said. “This is an important step forward, and certainly we’ll be looking at opportunities elsewhere as we move ahead.”