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Q3DM s Cell Imaging System Reborn at Beckman Coulter; Instrument Nears Market

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Half a year after acquiring the assets of cell imaging company Q3DM, Beckman Coulter is getting ready to market its version of Q3DM’s flagship product — the EIDAQ 100 high throughput microscopy-based cell fluorescence imaging system — to researchers in industry and academia.

The new system, called the Cell Lab IC 100 Image Cytometer, has been available to select customers since February, according to product manager Casey Laris. But the instrument’s full commercial launch won’t be until later this year, Laris said. A search of Beckman’s web site currently reveals no information about the instrument.

Although Laris did not disclose who specifically has ordered IC 100 instruments thus far, he said that the users included both academic researchers and drug discovery companies in the US and abroad.

The IC 100 is one of several “high-content” imaging systems based on microscopy that has either recently hit the market or is waiting in the wings for drug screening and gene expression applications, among others. Basically, the instrument automatically takes images of fluorescent cells and analyzes them. “It’s used for any kind of spatial measurements that can be made on cells,” said Laris.

The system autofocuses on cells on a microscope slide or in the well of a plate, acquires and stores a fluorescent image, and finds the cells in the image. It then measures as many as 70 different parameters determined by the user to get information about, for example, DNA content, aggregation of tagged proteins, or vesicle formation.

After that, it filters the data, gating down on cell populations of particular interest to the user, such as all cells in a certain phase of the cell cycle. Subsequently, the system prepares a report, either to display the data or to export it to other programs, like Spotfire, for analysis.

The IC 100 is capable of taking up to 10,000 images per hour on a microscope slide, at a resolution of up to 0.3 micrometers. It can also use any standard plate configuration, with the most common ranging from 6- to 1,536-well plates. The speed largely depends on how many images a user wishes to take, typically several hundred per slide, according to Laris.

Compared to Q3DM’s old system, the new instrument has a simplified user interface and improved workflow, making it “much more user-friendly for routine users,” said Laris. For example, it takes just a couple of mouse clicks to start a new application, he said, whereas before it took about 20 clicks to establish all the settings. “Internally, we call it one-click applications,” he said.

The simplifications will likely make the instrument more attractive to potential users than the previous version, which displayed impressive automation and analysis capabilities, but comprised complicated instrumentation.

“[The Q3DM] platform has really good software,” Paul Gilyon, COO and managing director of market-research company Life Sciences Insights told Inside Bioassays at last week’s Association for Laboratory Automation LabFusion conference in Boston. “But it was not really a product.”

In addition, Laris said that Beckman has improved the image processing algorithm, making image analysis four times faster than before, and has also added the ability to acquire images over time and in multiple axial (Z-axis) planes. However, the core patented technology, including the autofocus technology, — developed by Q3DM founder Jeff Price at the University of California San Diego — is still the same.

On the hardware side, many of the components have not changed, either, but Beckman has packaged the instrument into a box that can be rolled around between labs — a move that was likely necessary to make the relatively bulky instrument a potentially attractive laboratory addition.

In drug discovery, the instrument — designed for high-content screening — will likely be more suitable for secondary screens than for primary screens, according to Laris. “Right now, it’s impossible to have imaging systems compete with your normal high-throughput screening systems. You just can’t compete on speed,” said Laris, hinting that “we have some ideas how to change that in a couple of years.”

Even for secondary screening, it will be interesting to see how Beckman deals with a problem common to most “high-content” screening instruments: informatics. If thousands upon thousands of cellular images are analyzed to draw conclusions about a drug candidate, those images need to be stored and easily retrieved when the time comes for a new drug application.

Some screening instrumentation companies have partnered with informatics companies in order to tackle this issue. For example, in December of last year, Cellomics announced it had signed an agreement with EMC to use EMC’s Centera data management system to deal with the image storage bottleneck created by the Cellomics ArrayScan platform (see Inside Bioassays, 4/27/2004).

Though the Beckman Coulter instrument comes with a database, most users store the large raw images externally, Laris said.

Beckman would not give any pricing information on the IC 100, other than saying that it would cost less than $500,000. “Compared to other systems out there,” — such as Cellomics’ ArrayScan, and instruments from Amersham (now GE Healthcare) and CompuCyte — “we want to be very aggressive with the pricing,” Laris said.

—JK

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