Molecular Devices said this week that it has begun selling an environmental control module for its ImageXpress Micro imaging system in hopes of luring additional academic and research-only customers, and to keep up with trends adopted by rival HCS vendors.
The announcement continues to fulfill Molecular Devices' promise of adding capabilities to the bench-top CCD camera-based platform, which it launched one year ago as part of a plan to revamp its imaging technology offerings.
The release of the module also comes a few weeks after rival Cellomics introduced a live-cell module for its ArrayScan VTI reader (see CBA News, 6/2/2006).
The two instruments do not directly compete with one another per se ImageXpress Micro is a smaller, cheaper platform designed primarily for basic research, assay development, and medium-throughput screening campaigns, such as those performed in academic or secondary-screening pharma labs. The ArrayScan VTI, meanwhile, is designed for higher throughput high-content cell-based assays.
"From a market standpoint, it would be the wrong move for us if we didn't offer live-cell capabilities on our newer platforms."
In fact, ImageXpress Micro is more akin to Cellomics' lower-end KineticScan reader, which has always had a live-cell environmental control while Cellomics' ArrayScan has more traits in common with Molecular Devices' ImageXpress 5000A, an earlier, higher-throughput version of Micro that also features live-cell capabilities.
So in a way, the two companies have been responding to each other's HCS platform developments or, perhaps more significantly, to a trend that continues to blur the line between what academic and pharmaceutical HCS customers need.
"The ImageXpress 5000 has live-cell [capabilities] and it has reagent dispensing, as well, for doing kinetic studies," Jan Hughes, Molecular Devices' vice president of worldwide marketing told Cell-Based Assay News this week. "That's one of the reasons why we're keeping that unit. It's a much more expensive unit, and it's a little bit older technology, similar to an ArrayScan.
"However, from a market standpoint, it would be the wrong move for us if we didn't offer live-cell capabilities on our newer platforms, as well," he added. "There are huge numbers of customers doing live cell work who really require this capability."
Not all ImageXpress Micro users strive to conduct live-cell studies, however. An example is Harvard Medical School's Institute of Chemistry and Cell Biology Longwood screening center, one of the earliest academic facilities to conduct high-throughput and high-content small molecule screening.
The center's core facility uses an ImageXpress MICRO for higher throughput screens at least by academic standards of small molecule libraries.
"Our primary mission here is to be a core facility for the university and a high-throughput screening laboratory," Stewart Rudnicki, the screening facility manager, told CBA News. "As such, the role of our IX Micro here is a screening role.
"But when you put live-cell imaging capabilities on it, it becomes much more versatile for certain applications," he said. "It lends itself toward the types of assays where you put a plate on for 24 or 48 hours, then watch what happens when you change something in the cell. That is almost the opposite of high-throughput screening, where you're really looking for the needle in the haystack, going through a lot of different compounds to find the one with the desired effect."
Because of its role as a core screening facility, the ICCB-Longwood lab would likely not opt for the new environmental control module on the ImageXpress Module, Rudnicki said.
"I find it unlikely," he said. "We have a bunch of users who come through here and screen 10, 15, or 20 plates at a time. If you line up 10 screeners all of whom want to do 10 plates that leaves no time for a person who wants to monopolize an instrument for 48 hours."
Despite this, Rudnicki said he believes the add-on is likely to benefit customers who wish to use the ImageXpress Micro in a more basic-research mode.
"There are going to be those laboratories for which this will be a very important thing."
"There are going to be those laboratories for which this will be a very important thing," he said. "From my understanding, there aren't any other screening type of microscopes in that price range that offer live-cell imaging capability, unless it's kind of a custom scenario."
As an example of a custom-built automated microscope, Rudnicki described his lab's so-called autoscope, which it helped develop along with Universal Imaging, now a part of Molecular Devices. That product basically consists of a CCD camera, a motorized stage, and a filter wheel that responds to computer controls "essentially what are the innards of an IX Micro, or [GE Healthcare] IN Cell 1000, or [Applied Precision] CellWorx," he said. "To extend that, people have put boxes with humidity and temperature control around the stage area, so this is just a natural progression.
"For some laboratories, this might be really valuable," he added, "because you can get into a system like that … for just under $200,000."
Indeed, when Molecular Devices introduced the ImageXpress Micro last June, it touted its low price as one of the major selling points. At the time, the company said that the base price for the platform would be around $180,000.
Molecular Devices did not disclose current pricing for the Micro, but Hughes told CBA News that every instrument the company has shipped since it was introduced can be upgraded with the environmental control chamber, and the cost would be equivalent to a new, fully loaded purchase.
Molecular Devices has tested the environmental control module extensively in house, but has not field tested it with any early-access customers, Hughes said.
"We basically did all the in-house testing," he said. "It's a fairly straightforward option. It's a separate unit that sits along side it, and there is not really that much to test. You run the assays for a few weeks, and monitor your cells, and if they survive, you're OK. It wasn't a big technological challenge for us to upgrade that."
Ben Butkus ([email protected])