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SBS Conference Takes an Indirect Hit from Hurricane Ivan, But Forges Ahead Regardless

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Despite Hurricane Ivan’s best attempt to disrupt the Society for Biomolecular Screening’s annual conference here last week, the show went off without a hitch — almost.

It turns out that the threat of severe weather did scare a significant number of attendees away from the show. According to SBS representative Jim Toner, the conference lost an estimated 800 to 1,000 attendees, resulting in a total attendance of approximately 1,850. Furthermore, several companies that were slated to exhibit or sponsor events cancelled at the last minute — most notably BD Biosciences, Beckman Coulter, and Protedyne.

It couldn’t have been welcome news for SBS — especially since the hurricane never really impacted the mainland of Florida. But one can hardly blame those who cancelled, as forecasters put the hurricane’s path directly through the Orlando area as late as a day before the conference was slated to begin. Even many tourist destinations in the area saw feeble attendance.

Regardless, the actual conference went on uninterrupted and without technical problems, and continued its role as a forum for companies marketing screening tools for drug discovery, and conference attendees looking to exchange the latest ideas and experiences in bioassays. Following are some notable news items from the conference floor:

Quantum Dot Bioassay Activity Heating Up

Quantum Dot of Hayward, Calif., was exhibiting at the conference, and while the company was not showing off any new products per se, the company may soon begin ramping up its activity in the cell-based assay arena.

Stephen Chamberlain, senior marketing manager at the company, told Inside Bioassays that Quantum Dot was “very interested in the area of cell-based assays and drug discovery,” and that the company would be releasing related news sometime very soon.

As it stands, Quantum Dot’s Qdot nanocrystals have potential in a variety of applications loosely grouped under the term “biological imaging” — which includes drug discovery assays and medical imaging — but have not yet broken through in any one area. Cell-based assays, in particular, have proven somewhat difficult. Despite the dots’ superior optical qualities and stability, they are significantly larger than traditional fluorophores and are therefore trickier to implement inside cells.

Several microscopy and photonics companies have designed components that are compatible with the dots, but generally for low-throughput research applications. Last year, the company unveiled its first major product specifically designed for high-throughput gene expression studies: the Mosaic optical scanner, which resulted from collaborations with SC Biosciences and Panasonic. The scanner was released at last year’s SBS meeting, but it is unclear how many customers Quantum Dot has secured.

The company also struck a deal earlier this month with Ventana Medical Systems, in which Ventana will license nanocrystals for in vitro diagnostic applications in anatomic pathology and cytology (see Inside Bioassays, 9/14/2004). It remains to be seen how much this impacts Quantum Dot’s venture into cell-based screening, although the companies did say that Ventana would also incorporate the nanocrystals in its research and pharmaceutical discovery platforms.

Guava Shows Off Newest Cytometer

Guava was displaying the newest in its line of bench-top microfluidics-based cell analyzers, the EasyCyte system. The company rolled out the product two months ago at the International Congress of Immunology in Montreal, but had yet to showcase it at a drug discovery-oriented show.

The major upgrade in the EasyCyte as compared to Guava’s flagship Personal Cell Analyzer is the ability to detect additional fluorescence signals due to an additional photomultiplier tube, Paul Kinnon, vice president of sales and marketing told Inside Bioassays. Whereas the previous instrument allowed detection at 580 nm and 675 nm, the new instrument also enables detection at 525 nm. According to Kinnon, this gives users more flexibility in which fluorescent dye they are using — in particular, allowing the use of FITC, one of the more popular dyes for a wide variety of cell-based assays.

Guava’s aim was to keep cost down, Kinnon added; therefore, the EasyCyte still contains only one diode laser — operating at 488 nm, the excitation maximum for FITC. Furthermore, Kinnon said, the instrument still uses Guava’s proprietary microcapillary technology, which reduces reagent expenditure and allows individual cell analysis.

Kinnon did not disclose whether Guava had garnered any major customers for the new system, but did say that all of Guava’s cell-based assays — including cell viability, antigen detection, apoptosis, cell cycle, and cell tracking — were compatible with the instrument.

Whitehead's Carpenter Wins SBS Small Grants Award

In a testament to the increasing popularity of high-content cellular analysis for drug discovery, SBS recognized the work being done by the Whitehead Institute’s Anne Carpenter by awarding her a small grant worth $18,750. Carpenter, who discussed her work in an earlier interview with Inside Bioassays (see Inside Bioassays 6/8/2004), works in David Sabatini’s lab, which is experimenting with highly parallel live-cell arrays for gene expression studies, and possibly drug discovery. It is in this context that Carpenter is designing image-analysis software, called CellProfiler, to be coupled with automated microscopy methods to conduct such studies.

The goal of Carpenter and her colleagues is to develop “cell image-analysis software to allow biologists without training in computer vision or programming to quantitatively measure complex cellular phenotypes from thousands of images in a high-throughput manner,” according to a submitted abstract.

The grant money, Carpenter told Inside Bioassays, will be used to further the commercial development of the software, which, when completed, will be made free to academics and available to commercial users for a small fee. The Sabatini group also plans to use the software to analyze images from genome-wide RNAi experiments to study cell growth signaling.

Carpenter claims that such software is sorely needed in the high-throughput or high-content cellular imaging arena, and that the response is very positive thus far. “There has been interest across the board,” Carpenter said, “[from] individual academic laboratories, academic screening centers, pharmaceutical companies, and companies providing hardware and software for high content screening.”

—BB