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Serologicals to Buy Vitra CellCard Technology; Will Eschew Plate Reader for Consumable Only


Just a few months after Vitra Bioscience closed shop due to a dearth of venture capital, Serologicals will buy its flagship CellCard technology for conducting miniaturized and multiplexed cell-based high-content assays, according to a former Vitra executive as well as a Serologicals official.

The acquisition fits with Serologicals' recent entry into the cell-based assay and high-content screening arena through the partnership it announced earlier this month with HCS reagent and service firm Cellumen.

According to Simon Goldbard, Vitra co-founder and former vice president of product development, Serologicals has acquired the CellCard technology, associated intellectual property, and the rights to manufacture and sell CellCard and associated reagents.

Serologicals has not yet publicly disclosed the transaction, but this week, Bud Ingalls, Serologicals' vice president of finance and CFO, confirmed with CBA News that Serologicals has purchased the technology. Ingalls said the company has not yet disclosed a purchase price for the technology, however.

Dennis Harris, Serologicals' CSO and vice president of R&D and business development, told CBA News that the company closed the deal approximately two weeks ago. He also said that Serologicals will begin supporting existing CellCard customers, of which there are only a few.

"I think it's a good strategy, actually, and something [Vitra] should have done."

As for Serologicals' recent increased cell-based assay play, Harris said that the Vitra and Cellumen deals fit into the same strategy, and that the company would likely announce more initiatives in this area in the near future.

The CellCard platform comprises a reagent dispenser, plate reader, analysis software, and the CellCard "carrier" consumable — a microscopic chip, or card, on which various cell types can be grown.

The consumable is the enabling technology — 500-by-300-micron cards with colored strips on them that act as bar codes, so different cards can be distinguished from one another under a microscope.

The idea is to culture different cell types to confluence on different color-coded cards, heterogeneously deposit the cards in the wells of a microtiter plate, and image the cards and cells with the CellCard reader. Vitra's image-analysis software recognizes the various bar codes in each well and associates them with the proper cell type, and then a variety of fluorescence- or luminescence-based assays can be performed against several different cell types, using several different compounds, simultaneously.

Vitra had been making headway with the product, garnering positive reviews from pharmaceutical beta-testers. However, in November, the company was forced to close its doors and seek a buyer for CellCard due to tepid interest from investors (see CBA News, 11/28/2005).

"Unfortunately, the powers that be, which are the venture capital people, had a different agenda for the company," Goldbard told CBA News this week.

According to Goldbard, Serologicals will likely ditch the CellCard plate reader technology and attempt to market only the consumable CellCard carrier, associated reagents, and possibly the analysis software.

"They're going to start distributing the CellCards and reagents to go with them, and try to bring them into older [imaging] systems … that are out there," Goldbard said. "They think they're going to do well that way.

"I think it's a good strategy, actually, and something [Vitra] should have done, but for various reasons we couldn't," he added. "But [Serologicals] is not interested in instrumentation whatsoever."

Serologicals' Harris somewhat confirmed Goldbard's comments.

"I wouldn't say that we're not interested in the instrumentation," Harris said. "But we're not going to try and commercialize it. We're not an instrumentation company, and we think there is a good opportunity here to sell CellCard for use with existing high-content screening instruments."

Serologicals and Goldbard are not the only ones who think that selling CellCard without an associated plate reader is a good idea.

Taosheng Chen, a senior research investigator at Bristol-Myers Squibb who had been testing the CellCard system to conduct a number of cell proliferation assays, said last November that BMS was not able to become a paying CellCard customer because of budgetary constraints, despite a positive opinion about the technology's potential.

"As long as the data-analysis algorithm is made available to the user, we would be very interested in revisiting the technology."

Pharmaceutical researchers such as Chen may have been wary of investing in an expensive, specialized plate reader/dispensing instrument like the one that Vitra was attempting to market along with the CellCard consumable. However, investing in the consumable only may prove a more attractive option. Many pharmaceutical companies already have multiple plate readers in house that might, in combination with the CellCard software, be capable of running CellCard assays.

This week, Chen agreed with this and told CBA News that selling CellCard as a consumable only was "the best way." Chen added that the CellCard plate reader was very similar to other CCD camera-based plate readers on the market, such as those offered by Cellomics or GE Healthcare.

"They'll have to provide the algorithm to either the user or an instrument manufacturer," Chen said.

When asked if he thought his lab might be interested in adopting the technology, Chen said "definitely, because we already have a similar instrument from another company. As long as the data-analysis algorithm is made available to the user, we would be very interested in revisiting the technology."

The CellCard technology acquisition may also shed additional light on Serologicals' recently announced partnership with high-content screening reagent and service firm Cellumen (see CBA News, 2/10/2006).

The gist of that agreement called for Cellumen and Serologicals business units Chemicon and Upstate to co-develop and sell a cytotoxicity profiling panel and services for use in pharmaceutical drug discovery. It may behoove Serologicals, however, to further leverage this relationship with Cellumen, which is headed by Cellomics co-founder and HCS pioneer Lans Taylor, who is intimately familiar with Cellomics' HCS instrumentation and may be able to provide counsel on adopting CellCard assays on the platform.

It is unclear exactly how many paying CellCard customers Serologicals will inherit, as Vitra never disclosed sales figures for the platform. Serologicals' Harris this week told CBA News that there were only a few existing customers, and that Serologicals intended to provide them support. Most of these customers were in the pharmaceutical industry, according to past interviews with company officials.

In addition, last June Vitra initiated what it called the Primary Cell Program, an effort to seek pharmaceutical partners to investigate the use of CellCard to assay primary cells from multiple patients to assess population variation in vitro in the pre-investigational drug-discovery stage (see CBA News, 6/6/2005).

This week, Goldbard told CBA News that two pharmaceutical companies "were very interested" in this program. One of those companies was interested in investigating RNA transfection into primary cells for diabetes research, Goldbard said, while another group was interested in cardiovascular drug discovery.

"I'm just happy that it was acquired by someone like Serologicals," said Goldbard, who helped invent CellCard. "They're big, and they're going to give it a good shot. If they're successful, it's great, because I think it's a good technology, and it won't go to waste."

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

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