GENEVA — PerkinElmer is "highly interested" in investing in its cell-based assay and reagent businesses, and will likely attempt to acquire core competencies in these areas through acquisitions, partnerships, or both in the coming year, a PerkinElmer official told CBA News at the Society for Biomolecular Screening conference here last week.
By taking this step, PerkinElmer could diversify its offerings and catch up to some of its bigger multi-platform rivals, as well as eat into Molecular Devices' massive share of the cell-population assays and ion-channel screening market by combining new reagents with its newly launched LumiLux instrument and existing CellLux and UltraView instruments.
Deb Brusini, business unit leader for drug discovery within PerkinElmer's Life and Analytical Sciences division, said that in particular the company will be looking to add reagents such as advanced photoproteins to better enable its LumiLux high-throughput live-cell ion-channel screening instrument, which the company launched at the meeting.
In addition, PerkinElmer is looking to develop or acquire optimized cell lines to enable "mix-and-measure"-type assays on both its CellLux and LumiLux instruments. Farther in the future, the company also expects to acquire or develop optimized reagents for conducting FRAP and FRET analysis on its UltraView confocal reader, Brusini said.
"We'd like to concentrate on the ion channel area with the CellLux, and the whole GPCR screening area with the LumiLux. It's not that we think HCS is not promising, we just do see a lot of players in there."
The news is noteworthy because PerkinElmer, as a large-scale multi-platform life-science tool vendor, has been relatively quiet on the acquisition front for the last few years compared with some of its competitors, focusing instead on its existing offerings in mass spectrometry, microarray scanners, and high-throughput screening.
The company's decision to pursue acquisitions of other kinds of technologies or companies signals that it may recognize a need to diversify — and it believes that its play in the evolving cell-based assay market could be a viable business to grow.
PerkinElmer, a company known for its high-precision instrumentation platforms, has been lagging behind its competitors in the area of cell-based assays — in particular live-cell analysis — which, because of its increasing popularity among drug makers, has caught the attention of its biggest rivals. To be sure, PerkinElmer is one of the better-known names in one specific area of cell-based assay technologies — cAMP assays — but these are not true kinetic live-cell assays, despite the fact that they also command a large market in the pharmaceutical industry.
Recently, the term "cell-based assays" has often implied high-content imaging; however, PerkinElmer will eschew that approach for the time being, and instead concentrate its efforts on cell population analyses for applications such as ion channel and GPCR screening, Brusini said.
"We'd like to concentrate on the ion channel area with the CellLux, and the whole GPCR screening area with the LumiLux," Brusini said. "It's not that we think HCS is not promising, we just … see a lot of players in there. It's just like automated patch clamp — there have been opportunities to acquire those companies. But we just sort of looked at it and said that number one, we're not sure that's the full solution, and number two, it's crowded.
"From an instrumentation standpoint for HCS, it's not that PerkinElmer would say it's a bad investment to buy an HCS instrument, but we would say that the enabler is not the imager," she added. "There are plenty of good [HCS] instruments out there now. The enabler is going to be a real reagent menu that these folks can use day in and day out."
Although PerkinElmer already has internal programs in place to address the development of new reagents, "it's very hard to get that internal capability on your own," Brusini said. "So in the future what we'll be doing a lot of is acquiring competency in this area, as well as looking for technology to acquire in this area. The things that we'll be interested in will be anything that will allow these live-cell assays to be done more effectively."
Examples of possibly attainable companies with core competencies and key technologies in this area include Danish biotech BioImage — with which PerkinElmer already collaborated scientifically (see CBA News, 9/7/2004) — and Italian biotech Axxam. Brusini stressed that PerkinElmer is not necessarily interested in acquiring those particular companies. Brusini also said that Invitrogen would be an example of a company that would be attractive for a partnership in this area.
"You need people like those at BioImage, who are molecular cell biologists, but at the same time understand how to manipulate cells," Brusini said. "You need that competency with the ability to make a nice menu of sensors and probes for customers."
Challenging Molecular Devices?
PerkinElmer's biggest competitor in cell-population assays for GPCR and ion-channel screening is Molecular Devices, whose FLIPR platform is widely used. A few other companies have begun making strides in this area as well, such as Hamamatsu, with its FDSS 6000 plate reader (see CBA News, 5/30/2005).
Although exact percentages are not known, Molecular Devices enjoys a firm hold on this market with FLIPR, and is routinely considered the gold standard. According to a 2004 report by independent consultancy HTSTec, the preferred assay technology for studying GPCR activation was fluorescence-based calcium flux assays, with cAMP assays the second choice. Furthermore, the report said that the preferred industry detection technology was Molecular Devices' FLIPR.
Recognizing this, PerkinElmer hopes to challenge Molecular Devices' position in the market by combining new reagents with its newly launched LumiLux instrument.
"We do think the LumiLux can drive a paradigm shift in the way people are doing their calcium screening assays, which is predominantly with FLIPR," Brusini said. "That's been the standard for many years. Is there a better way to measure calcium flux? We think that there is."
Specifically, Brusini said that PerkinElmer believes that luminescence doesn't have the imaging artifacts that fluorescence sometimes does; it is more sensitive, which allows more effective 1,536-well screening; and it's compatible with technologies such as Euroscreen's well-characterized Aequorin luminescent protein.
"The main thing here is the return on investment that you get by being able to completely productize cellular screening and make it sort of a mix-and-measure biochemical assay," Brusini said. "This is really going to drive big pharma to think of a different way of doing calcium screening. If you combine it with the right kind of reagent technology, there are certain things that you just completely illuminate, and it allows you to use suspension cells. That makes it just like a mix-and-measure assay, and the cells become more like a regular reagent."
Because PerkinElmer launched the LumiLux last week, only time will tell if Brusini's vision of a "paradigm shift" in calcium screening assays will be realized. However, if and when any reagent acquisition does occur, it should help the company establish a firmer foothold.
"We think that in a couple or three years, people will be doing calcium screening the way people do things with a ViewLux today, the way Kalypsys runs billions of endpoint reporter gene and biochemical assays," Brusini said. "They'll be doing the same thing with luminescence. So we see this as a very important step to gaining credibility in this area."
— Ben Butkus ([email protected])