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Seven Months After Launching Extracellular Flux Analyzer, Seahorse Bioscience Exits 'Stealth Mode'

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SEATTLE – Earlier this year, Seahorse Bioscience earlier this year launched its flagship instrument for assaying cellular metabolism. This week, the company had a coming-out party of sorts when it presented the product here at the Society for Biomolecular Sciences annual meeting, the first meeting Seahorse attended that was focused specifically on drug-discovery technologies.
 
The North Billerica, Mass.-based biotech has been sustaining itself primarily on VC cash and modest sales from its legacy Labware division products since it was founded in 2001. Seahorse has been in “stealth mode” for several months despite launching the new technology, called the XF 24 Extracellular Flux Analyzer, in February, Steve Chomicz, Seahorse’s vice president of sales and marketing, told CBA News.
 
But Chomicz said that despite its quiet entry into the market, the platform is on track to hit sales goals for this year, and Seahorse expects the product to overtake the Labware business as the company’s principal revenue driver. He declined to elaborate.
 
“The goal was to put the instrument out and stay under the radar screen,” Chomicz told CBA News at the SBS conference. “We had a lot of customer design time early on to get input from pharmaceutical users about what worked and what didn’t work, which was very helpful in product design.”
 
The XF 24 is a combination benchtop instrument and specialty microplate that monitors the extracellular micoenvironment by non-invasively measuring the physiological behavior of cells.
 
The specialty labware, designed and manufactured by Seahorse’s Labware division, located in nearby Chicopee, is similar to a standard 24-well cell culture plate but comes embedded with various indicator dyes that are sensitive to changes in pH and oxygen.
 
Mammalian cells are grown on the plate, which is then placed in the readout instrument. Fiber optic bundles fed through to the microplate surface detect changes in the emission of the various dyes as often as every 10 seconds, which in turn provides real-time kinetic information about the changing microenvironment of the cells.
 
According to Chomicz, Molecular Devices at one time marketed a microphysiometer instrument called the CytoSensor, since discontinued, which made similar measurements using a test tube format. Chomicz said that the technology was well-validated in hundreds of scientific papers, but that Molecular Devices stopped selling it primarily due to the tepid market desire for a test tube-based platform.
 
Chomicz said that 15 pharmaceutical scientists currently use the XF 24 and continue to provide valuable feedback about the instrument. These customers are scattered through the “majority of big pharma and some academic labs,” he said.
 
Chomicz declined to identify any pharmaceutical users due to confidentiality agreements, but said that academic users include the Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard, the Medical University of South Carolina, and Belgium’s Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.
 
“It’s a little more than beta-testing,” Chomicz said. “These users have all either purchased an instrument or [have] budgeted to purchase one.”
 
A private company, Seahorse does not disclose its revenues, but the company will meet its target sales goal for the XF 24 this year, Chomicz said. He added that in “this year or possibly next,” revenues from the product will eclipse those from Seahorse Labware, which has been the company’s biggest moneymaker so far. Seahorse also raised undisclosed amounts of VC cash in 2001 and 2004.
 
The company’s target market consists of researchers who want higher content information about the physiological effects of drugs or other small molecules on cells for specific disease research.
 
“This is not meant for high-throughput screening,” Chomicz said. “It is for researchers in academia or therapeutic groups at pharmaceutical companies that want to gain a better understanding of drugs, especially those being investigated for diabetes, obesity, and in some cases, cancer.”
 
Chomicz said that, according to various presentations and discussions he took part in at recent scientific meetings, the number of obesity drugs in the pipeline at pharmaceutical companies exceeds the number of cancer drugs.
 
He declined to provide a market potential for the XF 24 in this area, but said that Seahorse has done “a lot of market research, and we know that diabetes and obesity drug research are definitely our biggest markets.”
 
Chomicz added that the only alternative assays on the market for measuring cellular metabolism flux are radioactive, and are being phased out for the obvious reasons of cost and safety.
 
A possible additional revenue stream may arise from the cancer drug research market, although customers are just beginning to explore using the XF 24 for this purpose.
 
“Cancer was not initially on our radar screens, but it turns out that there is a lot of interest in monitoring the extracellular environment of tumors,” Chomicz said. “Tumor cells are highly glycolytic, meaning they burn a lot of sugar, and the interest in monitoring the effects of drugs on their metabolism is very large.”
 

“Cancer was not initially on our radar screens, but it turns out that there is a lot of interest in monitoring the extracellular environment of tumors.”

Many other companies have been attempting to ride the swelling wave of products for label-free cellular analysis over the past two years. Perhaps the most parallel product to the XF 24 is a calorimetry-based, live-cell screening device marketed by Swedish biotech SymCel. This instrument, which as of late last year was in beta-testing phase, measures thermal power of cells as a way to evaluate their total metabolic rate (see CBA News, 10/24/2005). SymCel has also cited the well-validated former Molecular Devices CytoSensor to provide a scientific grounding for its approach.

 
A variety of other label-free cellular analysis devices have also popped up in the marketplace recently, including one being launched at SBS, Corning’s Epic plate reader, which uses waveguide sensing to perform high-throughput biochemical and cellular analyses. Other label-free technologies include those in the electrical impedance measurement category, such as MDS Sciex’s CellKey, Acea Biosciences’ Real-Time Cell Electronic Sensing platform, and Applied BioPhysics’ Electric Cell-substrate Impedance Sensing technology.
 
Most of these devices, however, are targeting either the high-throughput screening or early-stage toxicology and assay development stages of drug discovery, Chomicz said.
 
“We’re different in that we’re giving real-time physiology measurements that are non-destructive,” he said. “Researchers are also becoming more interested in this because it is showing them data that they’ve never seen before.”
 
Seahorse plans to eventually add sensors for other extracellular analytes, with dyes for CO2 detection first on the menu early next year, Chomicz said. New sensors will serve to provide a more “global view” of cellular physiology, he said.
 
“This was our first instrument product, but we have a roadmap of products that will come out over the next few years based on this technology,” Chomicz added.
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