Pushing further into cell-based assays and into the Pacific Rim market, PerkinElmer has signed an agreement with Australian biotechnology firm Bionomics to collaborate on drug screening programs against ion channel and G-protein coupled receptor targets, the companies announced last week.
The agreement centers primarily on Bionomics' ionX program for discovering and developing drugs against ion channels for CNS disorders such as epilepsy and anxiety. The ionX program is based on a variety of proprietary gene discoveries the company has made and its cellular and animal models for epilepsy.
"We're taking [this program] one step further on the ImageTrak by providing them with the tools to be able to validate the ion channel [targets] that they're generating," said Janet Park, PerkinElmer's global product leader for functional screening.
From PerkinElmer's perspective, the collaboration is also intended to expand its ion-channel screening capabilities, as the company continues to add cell-based assays to the services and products offered through the Life and Analytical Sciences unit of its business — the largest of PerkinElmer's three business units. According to Daniel Sutherby, a PerkinElmer spokesperson, the Life and Analytical Sciences segment accounted for approximately $1 billion of the company's total $1.54 billion revenue in 2003.
"[Bionomics] will also be validating some of our ion channel cell lines that we've generated … They're ion channel experts, and they're very keen to help us validate any ion channel cell lines we generate and any reagents we develop in that area."
"We're really coming at it from a tools perspective and a consumables perspective to allow us to deliver higher value in this cutting edge area to our broad biopharmaceutical customer base," added John Danner, vice president and general manager of PerkinElmer's biopharmaceutical business. "They are also supportive of us developing complementary cell lines."
Another expectation of the agreement, Danner told Inside Bioassays, is that Bionomics' Adelaide, Australia location is expected to drive the ImageTrak into Japan, Australia, and other hotbeds of research in the Pacific Rim.
"ImageTrak's a relatively new product, and there are some early installations in the US and Europe," Danner said. "But obviously the Pacific Rim's a terrific opportunity, and [its] needs are increasing both in terms of volume and sophistication."
He also noted that PerkinElmer already has a strong presence in the Pacific Rim life sciences market with its UltraVIEW confocal-based live-cell imaging instrument, which is used for multi-parameter examination of live cells on slides for basic research applications.
The ImageTrak is an epifluorescence-based imaging system that uses fiber optics, and has automated liquid handling and data analysis capabilities, for performing both kinetic and end-point assays on cells in 96-, 384-, or 1536-well microplates. The company says it is particularly well-suited for calcium and calcium flux assays, membrane potential assays, and ion channel assays.
"We're primarily positioning [the ImageTrak] into the high-throughput screening area and assay development area, as opposed to the academic market," Park said. "It's a higher-end instrument, and it certainly has the throughput capability that customers expect to have in their high-throughput campaigns."
One of the major advantages of the instrument, the company claims, is its "contact imaging" utility, in which optical fibers transmit light from the excitation source to the point of imaging, and back again to a CCD camera. Although only one excitation source is used, different optical fiber paths allow different emission wavelengths to be separated, thus enabling ratiometric assays such as those based on FRET.
The ImageTrak's list price is around $450,000, according to Danner.
Although a number of cell-based assay instruments are on the market, Park said that only Molecular Devices offers a comparable platform (presumably the FLIPR [Fluorometric Imaging Plate Reader] system).
"There aren't actually many [comparable instruments] in this space," added Danner. "And what Molecular Devices did was to become the early incumbent in the marketplace, and we believe that they have developed a market where many needs still remain."
Park went on to note that the fiber-optic technology and flexibility are what set the ImageTrak apart from its competitor, particularly the fact that it is incorporated with "a proven liquid handling platform" — the MiniTrak from CCS Packard of Torrance, Calif. In addition, she said the MD instrument uses one laser of a specific wavelength, which allows users to work with dyes only in the green region, whereas ImageTrak has the ability to move into the red and blue.
Coincidentally, the PerkinElmer-Bionomics agreement comes a few months after Molecular Devices' acquisition [see Inside Bioassays, 4/20/2004] of Australia-based Axon Instruments, which is most known for its ImageXpress automated cellular imaging system and PatchXpress automated parallel patch-clamp system.
Axon's platforms are suited for screening against ion channel and GPCR targets, but Danner was quick to say that the PerkinElmer agreement was not prompted by the Molecular Devices deal.
"I don't want to comment on our interpretation of that specific business development move," he said, "but our strategic initiative here was to continue to build out and globalize what we think is a next-generation cellular screening platform."
"If you look at Axon, theirs is an automated patch-clamp platform, which … although [it] is also with ion channels, is a very different application space,” Danner added. “It's a very different throughput regime, it's a different approach, and we think the market right now is a separate market. But, he added, “this was not in response to that in any way."