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Sale of ImageXpress Platform to Korean Institute Tempers Molecular Devices' Lackluster Q3 Results

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Molecular Devices this week said that it has sold an ImageXpress Ultra high-throughput confocal imaging system to the Institute Pasteur Korea, marking the first time the instrument has found a home in the Asian market.
 
Molecular Devices sorely needed the sale after two straight disappointing quarters in terms of revenues. The placement may also lead to additional revenues from Institut Pasteur because the non-profit organization continues to invest in HCS and cell-based assay technologies at a pace more typical of a pharmaceutical company.
 
In a statement, Molecular Devices said that Institut Pasteur Korea would use ImageXpress Ultra for drug discovery and “high-content genome-wide screening.” Neil Emans, head of the discovery cell biology group at the center, elaborated.
 
“My lab is interested in finding the genes involved in a cell pathway – such as receptor signaling – through genome-wide screening, and coupling this to identifying the target proteins for the small molecules modulating a pathway that we have found through high-content screening,” Emans wrote in an e-mail to CBA News this week.
 
“We use the Ultra to image genome-wide cellular microarrays acting on pathways through gain-of-function or loss-of-function assays,” he added. “Ultra enables us to image very large arrays – on the order of the size of your finger – covered in cells at high resolution, and in four colors. It is early … but Ultra is meeting our expectations well.”
 
The timing of the instrument placement is particularly opportune for Molecular Devices. This week the company said that softer-than-expected demand from pharmaceutical companies caused the company to miss its third-quarter financial guidance (see sidebar for details).
 
However, Molecular Devices said that drug-discovery imaging exceeded expectations and was its fastest-growing product line for the three months ended Sept. 30. It is unclear whether this result included the Institut Pasteur sale.
 
There may be an opportunity for Molecular Devices to further build its relationship with Institut Pasteur Korea and therefore garner revenues from assay development, reagents, or even additional instrument platforms.
 
“We are very impressed with the scientific talents at the institute, and are fortunate to be collaborating with them on the development of novel assays for the ImageXpress Ultra system,” Jan Hughes, Molecular Devices’ vice president of worldwide marketing, said in a statement.
 
“We look forward to working with Emans and his colleagues and contributing to their efforts to expand their high-content genomics program,” Shawn Handran, Molecular Devices’ director of imaging marketing, said in the statement.
 
Introduced at the beginning of this year to round out Molecular Devices’ revamped imaging product line, the ImageXpress Ultra is a higher-end, laser-based confocal system designed to complement the company’s more compact CCD camera-based ImageXpress Micro. But ImageXpress Ultra is also more compact and powerful than its predecessor, the ImageXpress.
 
Molecular Devices expected the instrument to directly compete with other high-throughput confocal systems such as Evotec’s Opera and GE Healthcare’s IN Cell Analyzer 3000, but at a lower price point and in a more compact package.
 
However, if the Institut Pasteur Korea’s work is any indication, the ImageXpress may complement the aforementioned competing instruments, as opposed to presenting an either-or decision for researchers.
 
“The ImageXpress completes but [doesn’t] replace the Opera readers,” Thierry Christophe, head of the screening technology and pharmacology group at Institut Pasteur Korea, wrote in an e-mail to CBA News. “We are using Opera for drug discovery and ImageXpress for target identification.
 
“In particular, one of the two Opera[s] we have is part of a fully automated platform … from Evotec Technologies, which allows us to screen large compound libraries,” Christophe added. “This platform is located in a BSL-3 safety lab to handle human infectious pathogen[s], which is not the case of the ImageXpress. We are currently working with tuberculosis and HIV on the Opera/Evoscreen platform thanks to this level of safety.”
 
Considering that the cost of a fully automated Evotec system can approach $1 million, and the ImageXpress Ultra checks in at around $500,000, it is clear that the Institut Pasteur Korea is investing in high-end equipment for cell-based assays and high-content screening at a higher than most non-profit organizations.
 
“I have been using HCS systems since 2004, [and] my lab was the first academic lab to have the Opera before coming to Korea,” Emans wrote in his e-mail. “We have [had] a significant investment in HCS and the infrastructure around it here at Institut Pasteur Korea [for] 18 months. Our commitment is to use cell-based visual screening for bringing academic and applied life science research closer, with a view to treating infectious and chronic disease.”
 

“Ultra enables us to image very large arrays – on the order of the size of your finger – covered in cells at high resolution, and in four colors.”

Institut Pasteur Korea also recently invested in ActivityBase software from IDBS (see CBA News, 10/6/2006) to store and analyze “large volumes” of high-content screening data being obtained with the Opera system. The institute will not use the IDBS software alongside the ImageXpress for the time being.
 
“Concerning IDBS, this software is used to record both chemical structures of our internal compound libraries, and to perform plate management and [link] the results coming from the drug [screens] to the chemical structures,” Christophe wrote. “It is not [a] plan yet [to] use IDBS with the ImageXpress, even if this could be possible [to] some extent.”
 
In fact, Institut Pasteur Korea has a modicum of informatics expertise in house. According to Emans, software being developed by Auguste Genovesio of the institute’s image mining group is being used to turn high-content images obtained with ImageXpress into genome-wide screening data.
 
And the institute may not be done building out its HCS infrastructure. According to Christophe, the Institut Pasteur Korea “will continue to be active in this field, which implies evaluation of adapted technologies or readers. We are thinking that the technology available today allows [us] to develop more complex screening assays, less related to a particular target, and that this approach should help to identify more and better hits, but also new cellular targets.
 
“In addition, the use of imaging-based technologies increases the level of information on the compounds such as acute cell toxicity,” Christophe wrote. “In [time], the hits should be faster to develop and will have more chance to be active [in] human disease.”

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