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UMich Collaboration, Dharmacon Alliance May Boost Fisher s High-Content Screening Unit


Fisher Biosciences recently announced two collaborations that, while quite different from one another on the surface, may provide greater visibility for the company's recently acquired Cellomics high-content screening business in part because of the potential for newly published research, technology development, and validation of Cellomics' instrumentation with Fisher's other biosciences capabilities.

The collaborations — a technology-development pact with the University of Michigan and a 10-institute siRNA research alliance led by Fisher arm Dharmacon — have the potential to provide Fisher with greater market penetration for all of its products, but in particular for high-content screening, which the company sees as a lynchpin for all of its other capabilties.

"The acquisition of Cellomics [gives us] one of the fundamental base technologies that really pulls together all of our capabilities," Leland Foster, Fisher Biosciences' CEO told CBA News last week. "You have, for example, our considerable presence in cell culture with our HyClone business; the ability to provide multiple cell lines in robust environments for use in the Cellomics machines; the ability to treat those cells with small molecules from MayBridge; the siRNAs from Dharmacon; and protein chemistry from Pierce.

"The acquisition of Cellomics [gives us] one of the fundamental base technologies that really pulls together all of our capabilities. You have, for example, our considerable presence in cell culture with our HyClone business … the Cellomics machines … small molecules from MayBridge; siRNAs from Dharmacon; and protein chemistry from Pierce."

"Cellomics pulls all of these together, and as the [collaborations] happen, scientists in the field will see how much more utilitarian the installed base of Cellomics machines [becomes], and [will have] the desire to have more of them in more places," Foster added.

Fisher's collaboration with the University of Michigan will be for five years, and is specifically with UMich's Center for Chemical Genomics within the university's Life Sciences Institute. It is designed to develop "new procedures for protein testing and sample preparation, innovative ways of using RNAi products, [and] broader applications of high-content screening" among other things, the company said in a statement.

"This is a broad-based collaboration with university faculty, involving all sorts of technologies, whereby the faculty will be requested to provide proposals to us, and we'll actually do some funding of the research," Foster said. "And of course we'd have some preferential rights to use the technologies that are developed, but that can be RNAi, cell culture, protein chemistry — across the whole spectrum."

Foster declined to reveal the amount of funding that Fisher might provide, saying only that it was "significant." In addition, he said, the company doesn't yet have specific examples of research that might be fitting, since Fisher is just now sending out the invitations for proposals.

Specific examples of cell-based assay research currently being done at the University of Michigan that might fit well within the Fisher research program include that of former Cellomics scientist Gus Rosania, who is studying the transport of fluorescent molecules and drug target localization in living cells (see CBA News, 9/28/2004); and Tom Kerppola, who has developed a novel live-cell assay called bimolecular fluorescence complementation analysis (see CBA News, 9/7/2004). Both have previously expressed interest in applying their assays to drug discovery.

Part of the reason Fisher chose to work with the University of Michigan is that it has been one of Fisher's "premier customers for many years, and we have connections [including] ongoing collaborations between our scientists and their scientists; involvement at the board level with some of our executives; and our general view that the Center for Chemical Genomics and the Life Sciences Institute pulling together cross-disciplinary approaches to common problems has a lot of appeal to us," Foster said.

Although the primary goal of the University of Michigan collaboration is to further technology development for Fisher, there is also a common thread with the Dharmacon alliance in that the research will hopefully help place products and further reveal how all of Fisher's parts can fit together.

"We'll provide intellectual resources, and some products in addition to money," Foster said. "In return, they'll provide us with their skills and laboratories to help focus on challenges that we perceive to be present in the market place, and will direct us toward novel and innovative ways of pushing the science along.

"Our major goal here is a systems solution to problems, and we're trying to move away as quickly as possible from a product-sale approach to our customers," Foster added.

In many ways, this statement echoes the strategy that Cellomics has been employing for the last few years: Since HCS is still a relatively nascent field, Cellomics felt it was most beneficial to just "get the word out" about the technology via collaboration, conferences, seminars, and training sessions. Such an approach was less sales-oriented and more about building business through word of mouth.

RNAi Screens

As opposed to the University of Michigan collaboration, which has a much broader technology focus, the recent global RNAi research consortium formed by Fisher's Dharmacon business is much more targeted toward that specific unit.

However, the nature of the research to be conducted — genome-wide screening using Fisher's siRNA library — is naturally compatible with cell-based assays, particularly high-content image-based functional assays on live cells.

"Doing high-throughput screens of the magnitude that we're talking about, which is full genomes, there is clearly interest in doing HCS as well with the partners," Bill Marshall, vice president of technology and business development at Fisher Biosciences, told CBA News. "We do know that several of the [members] will employ high-content screens and will employ the genome-wide high-content screening approach."

Consortium members include the Campbell Family Institute for Breast Cancer Research at Princess Margaret Hospital and the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital, both of which are affiliated with the University of Toronto; Cancer Research UK-funded scientists at the London Research Institute and the Institute of Cancer Research; the German Cancer Research Center; UNMC Eppley Cancer Center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center; the Netherlands Cancer Institute; the Scottish Centre for Genomic Technology and Informatics based at the University of Edinburgh Medical School; the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center; and Yale University.

Additionally, University of Cambridge scientists at the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research and MRC Cancer Cell Unit, and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center are also expected to join the initiative pending final institutional approval, Dharmacon said in a statement.

Several of these institutions already use Cellomics HCS platforms, according to Marshall, and as the consortium progresses, Fisher can likely expect to place more. However, Marshall reiterated Leland Foster's sentiments about the collaborations also providing financial benefits via product integration, validation, and word of mouth.

"There is clearly a commercial interest in this in that we're placing the [siRNA library] in several of the world's top institutions," Marshall said. "The recognition that these top institutions are adopting our technology is really of high value. I also think that the educational value of the output of these screens is going to be very important — being able to sort of influence the standardization of assays and the standardization of controls that are used in these things, so that we really show the best way to employ these tools."

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])


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