TTP LabTech, the drug-discovery subdivision of UK-based firm The Technology Partnership (TTP), last week disclosed that revenues for the nine months ended Dec. 31 have risen by 80 percent year over year, driven in part by multiple sales of its Acumen Explorer high-content microplate scanning cytometer.
The revenue spike, whose real numbers were not disclosed, is particularly good news for the Acumen Explorer product line, which initially struggled to gain acceptance because it is not a true imaging system, but instead a high-throughput laser scanning system that happens to be able to perform most cell-based assays currently used in high-throughput drug discovery.
TTP LabTech disclosed the revenue increase last week when it said it has taken over the operations of White Carbon, another subdivision of TTP. White Carbon markets workflow design and laboratory management software, aptly named Workflows, which TTP Labtech will use in an attempt to better integrate its instrumentation with customers' existing automation, the company said.
Besides the Acumen Explorer, TTP LabTech offers a nanoliter liquid-handling platform called Mosquito and a compound storage platform called comPOUND.
Because it is a division of a privately owned company, TTP LabTech did not disclose actual revenue figures or break out contributions from each of the three product lines. However, Jas Sanghera, TTP LabTech's commercial director, last week told CBA News that the company derives approximately equal revenues from all three products.
"The market didn't understand [the Acumen] at first. The majority of people only understood imaging."
However, he stressed that TTP LabTech's current "star performer" is Mosquito, of which the company has sold approximately 20 over the last two months. Sanghera attributed this to the fact that Mosquito costs much less than its other products.
"However, we've really been motoring with all three products, on every front," Sanghera said.
Furthermore, he said, sales of the Acumen Explorer got the company off to a good start at the beginning of its current fiscal year, which started in April 2005.
"In the first two months [of the fiscal year], we got more Explorer revenue … than we had in the previous 18 months," Sanghera said. "I think it's partly because we took Acumen back into LabTech, and we spent a lot of time reorganizing, redirecting it, and refocusing it, trying to get people to understand what it's good at, and what it's not, because it's not an instrument that can do everything. Obviously the message got through."
TTP LabTech has garnered a few high-profile placements and several repeat placements for Acumen Explorer in the past year. Perhaps most notably, Jim Inglese, deputy director of the National Center for Chemical Genomics at the National Institutes of Health, installed an Acumen Explorer in the NCGC's lab early last year (see CBA News, 2/22/2005), and has more recently championed the Acumen Explorer for its high speed in running fluorescent-based cellular assays, particularly Odyssey Thera's protein complementation assay (see CBA News, 8/29/2005).
In addition, Sanghera said that its biggest customer is likely Eli Lilly, and named Aventis and AstraZeneca as Acumen Explorer customers. "What we've been able to do this year more than in other years is expand on customers that had a single system," he said. "They have now essentially gone for multiple units on the basis of having tried them out for a year or two. Eli Lilly started off with one, [and] I think this past year alone [has] ordered another five systems.
Another reason TTP LabTech has seen a spate of sales, Sanghera believes, is that the Acumen Explorer costs less than many competing imaging systems. Most high-content true imaging systems on the market cost more than $300,000. In comparison, a basic Acumen Explorer sporting a 488-nm laser, two PMTs, and a slower read card costs approximately £104,000 (about $186,000), while a souped-up version with four fluorescence channels and faster read times costs approximately £154,000.
If the success of the Acumen Explorer continues, it may signify a larger trend in cell-based assays for drug discovery — the willingness to move away from slower, but higher content imaging systems, and toward faster cytometers that can't produce an image, but can run many of the cell-based assays currently used in pharmaceutical discovery.
"There is a comfort thing, where they still need to have a picture of the cell."
"The market didn't understand [the Acumen] at first," Sanghera told CBA News. "The majority of people only understood imaging. No matter how hard we tried to explain to people that it wasn't an imaging system, I think most of the time we were pulled back into saying, 'Well, yeah, actually it produces an image, but it's a line scan.'
"But I think now, at long last, people are suddenly interested in high throughput," Sanghera added. "People have been talking about it for a long time, but the reality of it is that very few people actually did high-throughput cellular assays. Now people are genuinely interested in it, and the imaging systems just cannot meet the speed and throughput requirements."
In addition, he said, "the enormous data piles that are generated make it very cumbersome to use imaging systems for real high-throughput screening."
Other companies marketing laser scanning-type products that do not produce true images would stand to benefit from this trend, as well. This most notably includes CompuCyte, which markets the iCyte automated imaging cytometer and iCys research imaging cytometer. But both companies still face significant hurdles because a majority of pharma researchers conducting cell-based assays for drug discovery want to see a picture associated with it, and Sanghera admits as much.
"There are many people who feel this way, by far the majority," he said. "There is a comfort thing, where they still need to have a picture of the cell. If you actually have an assay that you developed, and you understand what the information is that you want, and if the information can be supplied by a non-imaging system, and is as robust as what you would get from the image, then sooner or later it clicks.
"And once they understand, they have no problems, because we are able to sell lots of instruments into that one company because they finally understand what it's for," he said. "It's not a replacement for imaging systems; those still have their place on the research side."
Diagnostics is another area that TTP LabTech may be exploring in the future for the Acumen, Sanghera said. In diagnostics, the speed of a laser-based plate scanner may be a boon for increasing the throughput of clinical cell-based assays in a hospital laboratory setting. In fact, CompuCyte has echoed a similar strategy (see CBA News, 5/9/2005), as has Amnis, which markets a combination flow cytometer/low-resolution imaging platform called the ImageStream (see CBA News, 4/18/2005 and 9/5/2005).
— Ben Butkus ([email protected])