Following the recent completion of its reverse merger with Xtrana, Alpha Innotech will have more cash on hand to further develop cellular analysis applications for its newly released NovaRay detection instrument, company officials said last week.
The merger, which makes Alpha Innotech a publicly traded company, "gives us some additional investment money so we can continue to develop [cellular analysis] so that ultimately it's an application we can pursue aggressively with our new technology," Lewis Chapman, Alpha Innotech's vice president of global sales and marketing, told CBA News last week.
Alpha Innotech, which began in 1992, started life primarily as a player in the microarray scanner business, but has continued developing its instrumentation platforms to address the rapidly growing protein array and, most recently, cellular -analysis markets.
At the 2004 Society for Biomolecular Screening conference in Orlando, Fla., Alpha Innotech showed for the first time how its NovaRay detection platform might be used for cellular analysis (see CBA News, 9/21/2004). Since then, the company has been slowly developing validated applications for the instrument, mostly in conjunction with early-access partners that include Integral Molecular, the University of Arizona, and the National Cancer Institute, Sia Ghazvini, the company's vice president of business development, told CBA News.
"The merger gives us some additional investment money so we can continue to develop [cellular analysis] so that ultimately it's an application we can pursue aggressively with our new technology."
Alpha Innotech officially launched the new version of NovaRay in August with several new features that target it to the multiplexed array, or "array of arrays" market, Ghazvini said.
"When we say multiplexed arrays, we mean functional genomics, whether it be multiplexed ELISA assays in wells, or whether it be cell arrays in well format, and also, of course, genomics applications," he said. "The key for the system is the broad applicability because of its format flexibility, and wavelength flexibility."
According to Ghazvini, the system can image anything from microscope slides to 96- and 384-well plates. Furthermore, it has an eight-channel filter wheel that allows users to excite dyes between 400 and 700 nm, which "gives you tremendous dye flexibility in going form UV to infrared imaging," he said.
Alpha Innotech currently sells the NovaRay platform to the microarray, protein array, and cellular analysis markets. However, the company's specific value proposition for cellular analysis is going to be low price and high throughput.
"Our vision has become clearer in that right now there's a big gap in cellular analysis," Ghazvini said. "The current imaging systems for high-throughput cell-based analysis tend to cost … $100,000, all the way to $1 million.
"So our vision is to bring the ability to image high-throughput cell-based assays to under $100,000 to the broader scientific community, and to open up the market for cell-based assays," he added.
Ghazvini also said that the NovaRay currently sells for a hair under $80,000.
But can the company sell the instrument to the cellular-analysis market?
Because it uses CCD camera imaging, the NovaRay cannot achieve the sub-cellular resolution that is needed to image events such as fluorescent molecule translocation, or protein-protein interactions, for instance. Instead, Ghazvini said, Alpha Innotech wants to sell customers on the lower resolution but higher throughput of NovaRay.
"The unique thing we bring is well-centric imaging," Ghazvini said. "A number of systems out there are designed to read within the cell at very high resolution, but in order to capture the whole well, they require a lot of shots and image stitching."
Well-centric imaging, Ghazvini explained, takes images at about 4.5-micron resolution, and therefore of entire cells. "It makes it very statistically significant because you can see rare events inside the whole well," he said. "If you're using one of the high-end instruments, and you took an image within the well, and there was no activity in that area then are you not seeing any activity, or is it a rare event?"
A consequence of this imaging technique is that the instrument's speed allows users to screen a 96-well plate in one channel in less than 15 minutes, Ghazvini said.
Like any cellular analysis platform, the specific capabilities are suited to specific assay types. So while the NovaRay may never be a true high-content screening instrument, it seems particularly suited to the emerging field of cellular arrays, which scientists such as the Whitehead Institute's David Sabatini are developing to conduct high-throughput functional siRNA assays.
"We don't want to put our finger on one single thing, because there are a number of reporter assays being used for cell-based assays," Ghazvini said. "And cell arrays are making a wave because of the throughput and people's interest in doing reverse transfection and looking at functional events.
"That's what we think is the ideal case, but those applications are being developed as we speak," he added. "The whole thing about microarrays is a tremendous opportunity for the miniaturization of assays. The more multiplexed assays one can do in a high-throughput microwell format opens the door to a larger number of screens that can be done per day in a cost-effective fashion."
— Ben Butkus ([email protected])
Anatomy of a Reverse Merger
Terms of the transaction call for Alpha Innotech to merge with a wholly owned subsidiary of publicly traded Xtrana, and in turn become the surviving operating entity and a wholly owned subsidiary of Xtrana. The entire company changed its name to Alpha Innotech, and has begun trading on the NASD over-the-counter bulletin board under the new name, following a one-for-ten reverse stock split.
Alpha Innotech and Xtrana stockholders approved the merger earlier this month. All outstanding capital stock of Alpha Innotech, which was privately held prior to the merger, was converted into the right to receive shares of Xtrana common stock. Alpha Innotech, which had $10.5 million in revenues last year, expects its revenues to increase at least 15 percent in the current year ending Dec. 31, 2005, it said.