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Taking Aim at HCS Instrument Market, Thermo to Launch Tool That Integrates, Automates Imagers


Marking its first entry into the growing high-content screening market, Thermo Electron said this week that it will launch a combined hardware and software platform designed to help researchers automate and integrate their high-content imaging systems.

The product, called WorkCell, could find a niche market comprising HCS users at pharmaceutical and biotech companies who want to increase the automation capabilities of their existing high-content imaging systems.

It is unclear exactly what the size of such a market is, because it is not yet known how much Thermo's product may overlap with the capabilities offered by existing, market-seasoned HCS platforms. Thermo's challenge will be enticing customers away from such platforms — or convincing them that WorkCell adds value.

Thermo will officially launch the product next week at LabAutomation, the annual conference of the Association for Laboratory Automation, being held Jan. 21-25 in Palm Springs, Calif.

According to Chris McNary, vice president and general manager of laboratory automation solutions at Thermo, the key driver of WorkCell will be its Orchestrator software, which will incorporate components from existing Thermo products such as Polara, a general laboratory automation software platform, and LeadStream, the company's automation product for ADME/Tox screening.

We've worked very hard to make sure that we have those [HCS] platforms be able to talk up and down to their LIMS and informatics systems."

"We've focused on being able to take the imagers and, from a software side, seamlessly integrate them into our automation, but also on the back end, not do the image analysis but talk to laboratory information systems and corporate databases, which is a real problem with automation," McNary said. "We've worked very hard to make sure that we have those [HCS] platforms be able to talk up and down to their LIMS and informatics systems."

The product will also include some hardware components. According to Thermo, WorkCell [physically] accommodates an imager, and if needed, its reach-out capabilities allow access to external imagers. In addition, WorkCell includes Thermo's Vertical Array Loader, the company's latest robotic plate mover, which provides an up-and-down travel distance of 50 inches, and, because of a tucked-in arm, allows use of the product's entire vertical space.

"As a result, the functionality of a much bigger system is provided in an amazingly compact package," McNary said. "Liquid handling functions are performed by a fully capable liquid handler. For bulk reagent dispensing, any of the Thermo Multidrop line of dispensers can be employed." Additional capabilities of the system include ambient storage, incubation, barcode reading, delidding, and plate regripping, McNary said.

"We also greatly reduced the footprint of this system but at the same time, we've offered a couple of key benefits, such as the fact that it's an enclosed system," McNary added. "Whenever you're working with cells, you either want to protect the cells from people, or people from the cells, and we offer that with WorkCell."

WorkCell may compete for dollars against existing HCS instrument platforms that also offer automation and informatics capabilities, but will complement others that lack these features.

For instance, McNary said the platform can be integrated with instruments made by GE Healthcare, Molecular Devices, and Cellomics. In fact, when Thermo demos WorkCell next week at LabAutomation, it will be outfitted with a GE Healthcare IN Cell Analyzer, McNary said.

Will the platform fly? A Cellomics ArrayScan user at a top-20 US pharmaceutical company told CBA News that, at least when considering the ArrayScan, Thermo's challenge will be convincing the market that WorkCell offers something better.

"If someone is working with Cellomics, they're already getting some of these capabilities," said the scientist, who asked to remain anonymous because he isn't familiar with the new Thermo platform. "Thermo will really need to be able to articulate what the advantages are, and how they compare quantitatively to what Cellomics offers. How much time is spent dealing with the automation issues, and dealing with the plate data-integration issues?

"There may be other systems that need this type of a product, I'm not sure," the researcher added. "If it's a plate-handling robot, the question would be whether it integrates better than the … system that comes with the Cellomics platform."

"If someone is working with Cellomics … Thermo will really need to be able to articulate what the advantages are and how they compare quantitatively to what Cellomics offers."

The question may not be whether a potential user thinks WorkCell integrates better than the system provided by Cellomics, but whether the additional capabilities it provides can justify an additional equipment purchase. Thermo has not yet released pricing information for WorkCell, but will do so at LabAutomation, McNary said.

"There are some customization options available," McNary said. For instance, he said, "there are different components in the WorkCell such that if you chose a Cellomics imager over a GE imager, the price would be different."

A Backbencher Eyes Center Stage

Though Thermo has been in the cell-based assay space for four or five years, the WorkCell represents its first dedicated HCS product.

"In the past, we've gone to the end customer that has bought a stand-alone imager or imaging capabilities and quickly found out that a stand-alone imager doesn't meet their needs in throughput and walk-away time," McNary said. "So they've called us in as an integrator, and we have, post-purchase of the imager, integrated their imager into a robotic or automated solution that allows them to get a great degree of walkway time."

In addition, McNary said, Thermo has developed OEM relationships with companies in the HCS space, such as Molecular Devices, whose imaging platform incorporates a Thermo robotic arm.

So why did Thermo feel the need to develop a product more specifically tailored to HCS?

"That's an easy question to answer," McNary said. "We are tightly connected with the market and our customers, and the trend to go to anything cell-based has been driving market growth over the last couple of years. Some of the latest research studies say that somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of all assays will be using cells.

"We're following our customers' move away from the homogeneous and heterogeneous assays into cell-based assays," he added. "They have really led us into helping define what this product is."

WorkCell, however, "has been made and developed expressly for HCS, so it isn't an adaptation or modification of another platform just to say that we're in this space," McNary said.

In order to convince current HCS instrument owners to buy into the product, Thermo may find it necessary to partner with several vendors in this area and offer a packaged product. In fact, the company has already begun down this road, but will not solely rely on such partnerships to sell WorkCell.

"We will distribute this through our direct channels as a turnkey HCS system, which will allow the integration of a wide variety of imagers into the system," McNary said. "Having said that, though, it is also our strategy — and we've done this several times in the past — to either co-market with or privately license [the platform] to other companies. We are talking to the major imaging companies about co-marketing and distribution-type opportunities, but they aren't finalized at this point in time." McNary declined to identify these companies.

In addition, Thermo said it will begin beta-testing the product immediately following LabAutomation, and already has testers in place. McNary declined to identify the potential beta-testers due to confidentiality agreements, adding only that the users were located at North American pharmaceutical companies.

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

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