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Molecular Devices, Molecular Cytomics Pen Co-Marketing, -Development Alliance


SAN FRANCISCO — In a move aimed at gaining greater market penetration for their respective technologies, Molecular Devices intends to combine its high-content image-analysis expertise with Molecular Cytomics' flagship cellular array technology, company officials said at the American Society for Cell Biology meeting, held here last week.

The partnership will provide users of Molecular Cytomics' soon-to-be released cellular array technology with turnkey analysis capabilities powered by Molecular Devices' popular MetaMorph package. For Molecular Devices, the deal also represents another step in its goal to better connect with the academic and small biotech research community.

To those ends, the companies have jointly developed a drop-in module for the MetaMorph software that will enable turnkey data acquisition and analysis on Molecular Cytomics' Optical LiveCell Array technology.

Although nothing has been officially signed yet, Boston-based Molecular Cytomics and Molecular Devices have essentially entered into a co-marketing and -development agreement, company officials said. Molecular Cytomics representatives populated Molecular Devices' booth at the ASCB exhibit hall, and Molecular Cytomics scientists made a presentation during Molecular Devices' MetaMorph user meeting at ASCB.

The agreement between the two shops isn't exclusive in any way, and researchers interested in LiveCell Array could choose to use another image-analysis program, develop their own analysis algorithms, and use an imaging platform of their choice.

The Optical LiveCell Array and associated assay kits are set to be launched in January, Israel Biran, COO and manager of North American business development for Molecular Cytomics, told CBA News. Over the past year, beta testers at several sites, including Tufts University Medical School, have been evaluating the product for its ability to conduct highly parallel functional assays on living cells, for both basic research and drug-screening applications.

Biran noted, however, that the agreement between the two shops isn't exclusive in any way, and that researchers interested in LiveCell Array could choose to use another image-analysis program, develop their own analysis algorithms, and use an imaging platform of their choice.

In its current format, the Optical LiveCell Array is a disposable microscope slide that contains a single sample well on its surface that can be seen with the naked eye. But look closer — much closer, as with a microscope — and one can see up to 10,000 individual micron-scale wells, each of which is anywhere from 20 microns in diameter, for holding individual cells, to 100 microns in diameter for holding small groups of cells (see accompanying image).

A microfluidic channel at one end of the slide can be used to apply reagents, buffers, and washes to the cells, and the cells can then be imaged through the optically clear slide using essentially any type of microscope.

"You have 10,000 wells, and we recommend putting maybe 8,000 cells in," Biran said. "So basically you have one cell per well, although of course it depends on size. Via gravity they fall into the well, and the sharp [well] edges cause them to separate, and the cells almost can't stay between the wells.

SOURCE: Molecular Cytomics

"You can follow each cell over time, measuring kinetics, measuring antibody staining, and after you're done with your experiment on living cells, you can fix them, use chromatic staining … and correlate the results from the fluorescence studies to the chromatic staining in the same cells," he added.

Because the slide can be used with essentially "any microscope," Biran said, Molecular Cytomics believes the tool can be a low-cost alternative to more expensive high-content screening instruments, and thus the company is targeting researchers in academic and at small biotech companies.

Although almost any instrument — and any image-analysis software — can be used for detection, Biran said that Molecular Cytomics found that Molecular Devices' popular MetaMorph package was well-suited for the application, which is why the companies decided to collaborate.

"What you really need to extract the most information from each experiment is software," Biran said. "You can use any image software, but in the last year we worked with MetaMorph and really found this software fits our needs."

"It's user-friendly, and we collaborated with them on the development of an easy-to-use module for MetaMorph that will allow customers to use the array so that the starting time would be very short," he added. "If you're a MetaMorph user, you can get your result in one or two hours."

Biran also said that the main beta-tester of LiveCell Array at Tufts University has been using MetaMorph with the product for some time, as have beta testers at Boston University, a research institute in Germany, and one in Albany, NY.

Tri-Benefit for MDCC

From Molecular Devices' standpoint, the deal has three main benefits. First, it is another step in the company's goal to better cater to the growing number of academic researchers conducting high-content cellular analysis.

Earlier this year, Molecular Devices introduced the ImageXpress micro, a more affordable bench-top version of its ImageXpress HCS platform that can double as a research-grade microscope or a well-plate screening instrument (see CBA News, 6/20/2005). Helping enable a relatively affordable product like the LiveCell Array is a step in the same direction.

Secondly, along with the new version of MetaMorph (v 7.0) released by Molecular Devices at ASCB, it helps the company reaffirm its dedication to the MetaMorph product line, said Mike Sjaastad, Molecular Devices' director of marketing for imaging products.

Molecular Devices took on the MetaMorph image-analysis software when it acquired Universal Imaging in 2002. MetaMorph, being one of the first image-analysis packages on the market, already had a large user base prior to the MDCC acquisition. Molecular Devices then took the software package and made it the backbone of its ImageXpress high-content screening product line.

"Historically, Universal Imaging and MDCC were fully maintaining sensitivity to MetaMorph users and that product, and this is a perfect example of us trying to make that product compatible with as many things as makes sense," Sjaastad said. "It's not uncommon for us to develop a module for something.

"The [ASCB] meeting was primarily about launching MetaMorph 7," he added. "A lot of development effort has been invested into it for the research community, but also because we're very committed to that being the backbone of our entire imaging offering for years to come. There has been some question about MDCC's intentions with MetaMorph, and we think that this launch demonstrates that we're fully committed."

Lastly, the collaboration with Molecular Cytomics may eventually open up the non-adherent cell screening market for Molecular Devices. Currently, it is very difficult to image non-adherent cells such as lymphocytes and other blood cells, much less in a high-throughput or high-content fashion.

But the LiveCell Array can be used to image adherent and non-adherent cells alike.

"[Non-adherent] cells are round, and they don't sit still," Sjaastad said. "They're very difficult to image, and the way people have done this historically is to get them to stick to a slide so you can image them.

"I describe this as putting eggs in a carton — it doesn't damage the cells, but keeps them still," he added. "I think they also see it as a way of keeping adherent cells separate, because they can't crawl out of there. But the last five to 10 years have shown an increase in imaging utility for non-adherent cells in the immunology community, and this should be another thing to make it easier."

Although there is no specific synergy between Molecular Devices' ImageXpress platform and the Optical LiveCell Array — besides the fact that ImageXpress is driven by MetaMorph — there may be overlap with future iterations of the LiveCell Array. Biran said that Molecular Cytomics is currently considering a 96-well version of the array, in which each well would contain hundreds of thousands of micron-scale wells.

"They have plans for higher-throughput versions that will certainly dovetail right into our capabilities, and we would like to support that," Sjaastad said.

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

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