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Molecular Devices, Seeking Bigger Piece Of HCS Pie, Updates Imaging Technology

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LONDON — Making good on its January promise to bolster its stable of imaging products, Molecular Devices last week launched new software and hardware for high-content screening, integrating components of several acquisitions the company has made over the last year and a half.

The product launch was announced during the company's user group meeting, which preceded the Marcus Evans Practical Experiences of High-Content Screening conference held here last week. Molecular Devices also pitched the new products during a presentation at the meeting.

The products include MetaXpress image-analysis software; MDCStore HCS database; AcuityXpress informatics software; and the ImageXpress Micro, a bench-top version of its existing ImageXpress platform.

"It had been some time since Molecular Devices invested in imaging, and we've invested a lot into bringing these [imaging] technologies to market," said Mike Sjaastad, Molecular Devices' director of marketing for imaging products, during a presentation here.

Molecular Devices had previously offered, and continues to offer, its first-generation imaging system — the Discovery-1 automated microscopy platform. When the company acquired Axon in July of last year, it also brought into the fold Axon's ImageXpress automated microscopy platform. However, the company has recently said that sales for both platforms were disappointing, and industry insiders have been wondering if Molecular Devices was going to integrate the platforms.

The company answered that question last week with the launch, and believes it now has a product line that combines the strengths of several previous platforms.

Sjaastad said that there are approximately 10,000 academic and biotech users of MetaMorph, the image analysis platform that Molecular Devices picked up in 2002 when it acquired Universal Imaging. This software is the basis for the new MetaXpress product.

"MetaXpress is essentially MetaMorph with a different front end, so that we can have a uniform graphical user interface on all of our instrument products," Jan Hughes, Molecular Devices' vice president of worldwide marketing, told Cell-Based Assay News. "We'll continue to develop the core backbone of MetaMorph, which enhances MetaXpress. MetaMorph didn't have a uniform look, depending on what instrument you were trying to drive."

Perhaps more importantly, the new platform also incorporates elements from a related technology in which Axon held a good deal of expertise: microarray image analysis.

"Axon had a tremendous capacity for informatics, because of the GenePix platform for microarray analysis," Sjaastad said. "We've incorporated this into the backbone of the new platform."

It will be interesting to see if the new imaging strategy, which is heavy in image analysis and informatics, pays off for Molecular Devices. Image analysis and informatics is widely considered to be the major strength of HCS market stalwart Cellomics, and in fact, seems to be surfacing as one of the most important issues within high-content screening.

Another player in the HCS market, GE Healthcare, seemed to bolster the importance of informatics in the field with the launch of new software for its IN Cell Analyzer platform during the conference (see Products, this issue).

Although Molecular Devices expects its revamped platform to better compete with other high-content screening vendors, it is eyeing a broader strategy in which it can integrate all of its drug-discovery products — such as FLIPR and PatchXpress — to address customers' needs across several areas.

"I think you can safely say that there are overlaps in the imaging market with all the players," Hughes said. "We're not necessarily targeting Cellomics' particular customers."

"We have a slightly different customer base, too, in the sense that [Cellomics] is trying to provide the best solution they can for HCS," Sjaastad added. "We're providing that, and [also] integrating all the other instruments that our customer base has."

In fact, the new software packages are designed to form the basis of the integration Sjaastad referred to, so that data from each platform can be culled through together, contrasted, and compared.

Molecular Devices said that its new software packages will be adaptable to all of its automated imaging platforms, old and new. The company will be charging about £2,500 for a single seat to its MetaXpress, and about £1,200 for use of one of the 10 individual analysis modules from AcuityXpress (or a discounted price for the full suite of 10), Sjaastad said. Hughes and Sjaastad explained that the prices quoted at the European user group meeting and the Marcus Evans conference would be comparable, but not necessarily directly convertible, to US dollars.

Validation

Molecular Devices has already received industry validation for its AcuityXpress software, the company said during its user group meeting, citing a recent study conducted in collaboration with Ralph Garippa and Anne Hoffman, HCS scientists with Roche at its Nutley, NJ, locale.

In this collaboration, Molecular Devices informaticists analyzed data from the well-known fluorescence translocation assay Transfluor, generated by Roche on three different high-content screening instruments: Evotec's Opera, GE Healthcare's IN Cell Analyzer 3000, and Cellomics' ArrayScan.

"This is the philosophy for every new product — software or instruments," Hughes said. "Generally, we'll go and find product champions, which are customers, and depending on what we're developing, they'll help us define features and concepts.

"Roche was one of many associated with the imaging launch," Hughes added. "But Garippa and Hoffman were very instrumental in AcuityXpress data … and they have access to the three products, so it was nice to be able to get that data."

New Hardware

Several conference attendees told Cell-Based Assay News that Molecular Devices seemed to be targeting the academic and small biotech market with its only piece of new hardware, the ImageXpress Micro. It is the smallest and most affordable of Molecular Device's imaging systems, fitting on a laboratory bench-top and, according to Sjaastad, sporting a base price of about £100,000. He added that an optional laser auto-focus feature and upgraded camera choices would run a customer several thousand more pounds.

"With technology evolution, you want the power of the products to increase, and you want the price of those products to drop," Hughes said. "So this is our initial attempt at achieving that: Equal performance with a dramatic increase in affordability.

"I think people might misinterpret the bench-top aspect," he added. "Bench-top shouldn't be an analogy to inexpensive and low quality, or low throughput. It's bench-top because we know it's a really high priority in laboratories — bench space is really valuable. So we purposefully developed it smaller than ImageXpress 5000A, because our customers said it was a good instrument, but it was big."

"It remains to be seen what markets that price point will open." Sjaastad added. "So you could argue that academia is for sure in that price point, biotechs are in that price point, and so are assay development labs in pharma."

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])