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Thermo's Placement of HCS Automation Product at Emory MLSC May Set Stage for More Academic Sales

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Thermo Electron this week announced that is has sold an HCS WorkCell platform for automating high-content cellular and biochemical screening to the Molecular Libraries Screening Center at Emory University.

This is the first disclosed placement of an HCS WorkCell since Thermo introduced the platform six months ago in an attempt to jump into the growing high-content screening market. It is also indicative of the growing market for laboratory automation at academic screening labs in general and at the newly formed MLSC Network in particular.

Emory's MLSC is one of 10 members of the MLSCN, a nationwide consortium of centers funded by the National Institutes of Health with the goal of producing innovative chemical tools for use in biological research and generating publicly available data from cell-based and biochemical screening assays.

Emory's center is led by Raymond Dingledine, professor and chairman in the department of pharmacology. Thermo said that Emory will be using WorkCell to screen small molecule libraries for their activity against specific protein-protein interactions using both high-content cell-based and biochemical assays.

Launched in January (see CBA News, 1/20/2006), the HCS WorkCell is a combined hardware and software platform designed to help researchers automate and integrate their high-content imaging systems. Thermo already had products similar to the WorkCell in specific application areas, such as ADME, but introduced the HCS version this year in response to what it considers a growing HCS market.

The complete system at Emory comprises a Vertical Array Loader plate-loading robot; three plate readers (a high-content imager and two Thermo plate readers); a cell incubator; robotic liquid handler; plate washer; and ancillary instruments (see image below).

According to Thermo, the WorkCell is expected to more than double the laboratory's throughput. Calls to Emory's MLSC were not returned in time for this publication.

Chris McNary, vice president and general manager of laboratory automation solutions for Thermo, told CBA News that the company also has several undisclosed development partners for the HCS WorkCell, most of which are pharma and biotech companies. However, the Emory MLSC placement is the first one that Thermo has been able to disclose.

The MLSCN Money Machine

The MLSCN is turning out to be an attractive source of revenue for drug-discovery tool vendors and laboratory automation equipment suppliers. With throughputs expected to rival those of many pharmaceutical drug-discovery labs, automation products are fast becoming a necessity for the centers.

The NIH Center for Chemical Genomics, which serves as the MLSCN "hub," set the bar two years ago by integrating an entire Kalypsys robotic suite for automating its HCS and HTS campaigns.

Many of the other MLSCN members have followed, or plan to follow, suit. In April, for example, Tecan said that it had outfitted Columbia University's MLSC with automated workstations for compound screening and profiling work, the bulk of which will consist of high-content cell-based assays (see CBA News, 4/14/2006). Also, MLSCN member Vanderbilt uses an array of automation instrumentation from Thermo, TekCel, and Velocity 11; and the University of Pittsburgh screening center uses platforms from PerkinElmer and Velocity 11.

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Undoubtedly, many of these centers are geared more toward high-throughput biochemical screening, but the recent increase in the use of high-content cellular imaging may be a boon for manufacturers of HCS-specific automation, such as Thermo.

The Burnham Institute's MLSC features several HCS platforms, including Q3DM's EIDAQ 100, Beckman Coulter's IC 100, and GE Healthcare IN Cell Analyzer, according to its website. The center currently uses Thermo CataLyst Express robotic arms and plate hotels to automate these systems, and plans call for at least one of the systems to be integrated with a ThermoElectron Cytomat 6000 incubator and multiple plate hotels to create an integrated HCS system, the website states.

"When we integrate something with a CataLyst Express, there are two differences between that and a WorkCell," McNary said. "One is that it is not in an enclosed environment, and a lot of people want to enclose the environment … to [either] protect the cells from the people or the people from the cells.

"The second [difference] is that the Catalyst Express is usually in a lower throughput mode than the WorkCell, which has a VAL robot and uses the vertical space; whereas the Catalyst Express will use the horizontal space. So the WorkCell is much more efficient from a lab space standpoint, and can also have a higher throughput than the Catalyst Express."

McNary also said that Thermo serves as an integration provider for the Burnham Institute's MLSC, meaning it helps its researchers integrate their HCS and HTS automation, even if it involves other companies' products.

So Thermo clearly already has a strong presence in the MLSCN - but the academic market for automation is even bigger than that, according to McNary.

"There are also a lot of externally funded initiatives - most of which happened to be funded by the government - where they set up consortia and set up core labs, so many academic centers in a region have one core lab they can go to because each of them couldn't afford to put that type of technology in their lab," McNary said. "It's common, and we see it in protein crystallization and high-content screening for some externally funded initiatives to have a core lab like that in place."

Recent examples of such core facilities with a particular focus on HCS include the Computational Medicine Center, a collaborative institute between the University of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Children's Hospital (see CBA News, 4/7/2006); the Gulf Coast Consortium for Chemical Genomics, a group of six Texas-area universities and research centers that has significant NIH funding and a special interest in applying cell-based imaging technologies to chemical genomics research; and the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research, which is housed at the University of San Francisco and collaborates with other Bay-area academic institutions.

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