SAN FRANCISCO — Optical instrument manufacturer Reichert is taking its first step into the cell-based assay market with the release of a compact benchtop cytometer that uses electrical impedance to measure changes in cell volume.
The instrument, called the Cell Volume Cytometer, will likely be available in June, a company official told CBA News at the American Society for Cell Biology meeting held here earlier this month.
In the meantime, Reichert is seeking beta-test partners for the tool and pursuing pertinent intellectual property as it feels its way around the relatively unfamiliar market for cell-based assays for drug discovery.
The technology behind the cytometer was invented by researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo (see CBA News, 2/22/2005), which subsequently licensed it to Reichert.
Although the inventors envisioned the cytometer as eventually being useful in high-throughput drug screening, basic laboratory research, clinical testing, and environmental biosensing, Reichert will initially market the product to basic biology researchers at academic institutions, Robert Carey, Reichert's general manager for analytical instruments, told CBA News.
"The initial instrument will probably be aimed at university laboratory [researchers] that are looking to use cell volume to measure some reaction on cells," Carey said. "We do think that it's scalable, however, which means that in the future, it could be a high-throughput screening device."
"We do think that it's scalable, which means that in the future, it could be a high-throughput screening device"
This would not mark the first foray into drug-discovery tools for Reichert. Founded as a spin-off of microscope manufacturer Leica in 2003, Reichert had a long history of expertise in optics-related instruments across several markets, but primarily the research laboratory market, Carey said.
Since that time, the company has broadened the scope of its expertise to include tools for fluid testing and biochemical detection; and has expanded into several markets, including clinical, automotive, and food and beverage.
Its first step into the drug-discovery market occurred when, via a partnership with Cornell University, it adapted some of its traditional refractometer technology to incorporate an optical technique known as surface plasmon resonance and develop the SR7000 Surface Plasmon Resonance Refractometer.
SPR is an optical technique that can be used to measure refractive index changes at the surface of thin films. It has gained popularity in the last decade as a multi-purpose biology laboratory tool, and is useful for studying "interactions between a wide range of molecules, including proteins, nucleotides, pharmaceuticals, and surface active agents," according to the Reichert website.
Reichert joined a rapidly crowding market when it introduced the SR7000, as many companies now offer instruments based on SPR for everything from SNP genotyping to high-throughput biochemical screening.
"There are probably 20 companies in the market today that are using different versions of an optical sensor that somehow changes when the surface properties of something you're measuring changes," Carey said. "These are all aimed somewhat in the same area. The difference in our platform is that it's aimed at individual researchers, and [is] not high-throughput in any sense."
Using electrical impedance to measure changes in cells on a surface is not new, either. In fact, the concept has been around for nearly 20 years, but only recently have companies begun to exploit the technique as a drug-discovery assay. Recent examples include Applied Biophysics (see CBA News, 11/14/2005), Acea Bioscience (see CBA News, 1/18/2005), and MDS Sciex (see CBA News, 8/15/2005), each of which has introduced a system for impedance-based cytometry in the last two years.
But, Carey said, all of these instruments "tend to measure the impedance where the cells have grown on the electrode itself. Our system measures the entire volume of cell change within the chamber, and it doesn't matter where those cells are in the chamber.
"If they change, then we measure it," he added. "We're measuring between the electrodes, not on the electrodes."
Reichert's instrument can only be used to measure cell health due to volume changes, however, while the above instruments have the ability to measure characteristics such as cell motility and ion channel activation. Of course, almost every cellular characteristic links to overall cell health, a fact that Reichert hopes it can exploit as it develops applications for the Cell Volume Cytometer.
"Applications are a difficult question, because we're working off of the experience of the inventors," Carey said. However, he said, some examples might include measuring the efficacy of chemotherapeutics and infectious disease screening.
"Because you don't have to grow the cells — you can put them into a chamber — you could excise cells from a cancer patient, put them into the chamber, dose them with chemotherapy, and then measure whether that chemotherapy is having any type of response," Carey said.
"In the case of bacterial cells, which are generally just floating around, we think there could be an affinity sensing type of chamber that would be specific for anthrax or something like that," he added. "You could then flow samples through there and you would know when you got a hit, because they would be immobilized in the impedance and the chamber would change."
Reichert currently has a prototype instrument available, and is looking for beta-test partners at academic institutions, which is one of the reasons it made its first appearance at the ASCB meeting. Carey said he anticipates a full product sometime in June of the coming year that will be priced between $10,000 and $15,000.
"This will probably be multi-channel, maybe eight channels or so," he said. "These would obviously be aimed at the bench-top researcher.
"Let's say we went into high-throughput screening, and we adapted it to the infrastructure of multi-well plates," Carey posited. "That's rather hard to say what the cost is going to be, because it's going to be a rather large data issue. At that point it's more an informatics problem than a technical problem with the sensor."
— Ben Butkus ([email protected])