ITI Life Sciences, a Scottish government-backed initiative dedicated to expanding Scotland’s global presence in the life sciences marketplace, last week announced the initiation of its first research program — a £3.7 million ($6.9 million) effort to develop 3D cell-based drug-screening technology.
Three small Scottish biotech firms — Edinburgh Instruments, Hannah Interactions, and CSS-Albachem — will participate in the three-year program, contributing expertise in the areas of fluorescence-lifetime-detection instrumentation, primary cell culture, and peptide-based assay reagents, respectively.
The program is the first of four that ITI Life Sciences intends to announce over the next three months, each of which will focus on different market opportunities within the life sciences industry, company officials told Inside Bioassays last week.
ITI Life Sciences said that the hope is to commercialize the cell-based assay product in four years — or one year after the end of the three-year research program — to be targeted to the primary screening arena. In the meantime, each of the participants stands to benefit, said Alan Hale, program manager for the ITI Life Sciences cell-based assay research initiative.
“It allows all the parties to gain a lot,” Hale said. “Edinburgh Instruments can obviously go on to sell that technology, that platform, for biochemical and cell assays. Hannah [is] obviously trying to build [its] business, and can probably envisage other related products down the line. And clearly, the technology CSS-Albachem is developing could be used in other assays.”
ITI Life Sciences was launched in September 2003. It is one of three ITIs (Intermediary Technology Institutes) — the other two being ITI Techmedia and ITI Energy — incorporated in 2003 by Scottish Enterprise, Scotland’s main economic development agency.
The overarching goal of ITI Scotland, according to its website, is to “stimulate company and research base growth by identifying future emerging markets, and developing the technology required to exploit these commercially” in areas in which Scotland has strong economic and business development potential.
Each of the three ITI divisions will receive a minimum of £150 million ($280 million) from the Scottish government over the next ten years to achieve this goal. In a sense, each ITI functions a bit like a nationwide technology-transfer agent for Scottish companies and universities — each of which pays an annual membership fee of about $750. Currently, the group has 57 confirmed members, with an additional 10 applications pending, ITI Life Sciences said.
“We’re very much market-oriented and commercially driven,” said Paul Heaney, director of technologies and markets at ITI Life Sciences. “We’re trying to pull together intellectual property and intellectual assets that will allow Scottish companies or Scottish technologies to build … around particular areas, and get that technology out into the marketplace very rapidly.”
Heaney added that the research programs will not necessarily involve only Scottish companies.
“We’re very much looking at the global marketplace, and we want to commercialize into the global market,” he said. “We really want to try and build the technology and R&D base within Scotland, and allow it to commercialize globally. Some of the other programs may involve commissioning R&D programs around the globe.”
Cell-based Assay Opportunity
ITI Life Sciences’ decision to pursue the cell-based assay arena first did not come out of thin air. Program officials recently conducted market research and concluded that approximately half of all assays used in drug discovery are cell-based; a figure that has been echoed by experts within the pharmaceutical industry — for instance, Ralph Garippa, a research leader with Hoffman-LaRoche (See Inside Bioassays, 2/8/2005).
ITI said that cell-based assays represented a global market opportunity of $750 million last year, and that it expects that figure to “grow by 20 percent in the coming years.” Furthermore, ITI said, fluorescence-based platforms are expected to account for two-thirds of cell-based screening instrumentation.
In Europe alone, according to a recent Frost & Sullivan report, the cell-based assay market opportunity was about $140 million last year — to which fluorescence-based assays contributed approximately $75 million.
However, most cell-based assay technologies currently on the market consist of either acquiring fluorescent images or measuring fluorescence intensity of individual cells on well plates.
ITI Life Sciences proposes to offer something unique: measurements of protein interactions in cells based on fluorescence lifetime detection, and use of a 3D cell “system” that is intended to closely approximate living tissues.
“It’s going to be dependent on the technology that we have through Edinburgh Instruments, which we believe is a more sensitive technology,” Heaney said. “It’s based on single-photon time correlation. Edinburgh Instruments [has] a long history in that area, and [has] detection instruments that have gone into many other non-life-sciences applications.”
Single-photon time correlation is an extremely sensitive method that, as the name implies, can detect single emitted photons to determine the lifetime of a fluorophore, which in turn provides valuable information about the surrounding environment. Its main advantage over intensity-based techniques in a screening application would be that it can more easily distinguish between multiple fluorophores, making multiplexed assays more feasible.
“The software that they’ll be using for the detection will, we feel, allow us to discriminate between up to four or maybe five individual fluorophores within the reaction,” Heaney said.
Hannah Interactions’ contribution to the project will be in the area of primary cell culture growth and manipulation. In particular, the company has been working on 3D architectures of cells designed to mimic living tissues. The company has also worked out cryopreservation techniques that, in theory, will allow the cell systems to be shipped, thawed, and used in live-cell assays.
“There have been a number of reviews and features in journals [in which] academics have found that the expression profiles for 3D systems are probably much more like the real thing, and that 2D maybe doesn’t give a completely accurate picture,” said Hale.
“It’s as close as you can get to being a tissue without being a tissue,” added David Milroy, a market analyst for ITI Life Sciences. “Essentially it will be a mixture of primary cells, and you’ve got lots of different options.
“Initially, these will be oncology models, so they’re likely to consist of some sort of cancer cells mixed with some of the supporting cells, like stromal cells,” Milroy added. “And when you look for communications between those types of cells, it’s a better model for the real thing.”
Lastly, CSS-Albachem will develop substrates specifically for the lifetime fluorescence assays.
“If you look at the strength of the three important parties involved in this, they cover the fields of chemistry, biology, and physics, which in itself is an unusual mix to bring into an arrangement,” Heaney said.