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Unveiling New Confocal Imaging System, Molecular Devices Hopes Low Price Will Undercut GE, Evotec

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Molecular Devices next week will round out its revamped imaging product line when it launches a benchtop high-speed confocal imaging system at Cambridge Healthtech Institute's High-Content Analysis conference, a company representative told CBA News this week.

The new system, called ImageXpress Ultra, is Molecular Devices' first truly confocal imaging system, and gives the company a high-throughput imaging system that is expected to directly compete with similar products offered by GE Healthcare and Evotec Technologies. Molecular Devices, however, thinks it can undercut the competition with "higher performance at a lower price," Mike Sjaastad, Molecular Devices' director of marketing for imaging products, told CBA News.

If the product is successful, some industry experts feel it could also expand the market for high-throughput confocal imaging systems by putting the instruments within the reach of academic researchers who previously could not afford them, and enticing pharmaceutical researchers who otherwise are reluctant to spend the money.

The ImageXpress Ultra rounds out the stable of imaging products that grew out of Molecular Devices' 2002 acquisition of Universal Imaging and its MetaMorph image-analysis software, and its purchase two years later of Axon Instruments and its flagship microscopy platform, ImageXpress.


"The difference between $1 million and under $500K is literally the difference between managing to purchase it and not for most academic institutes."

Molecular Devices last summer unveiled the first fruits of those transactions when it launched the ImageXpress Micro, a more compact version of its predecessor; MetaXpress image-analysis software; the MDCStore HCS database; and AcuityXpress informatics software (see CBA News, 6/20/2005).

Now, the company has remade ImageXpress into a higher-end, laser-based confocal system designed to complement the CCD camera-based ImageXpress Micro, and that can be integrated with the new image-analysis and informatics products.

"Historically, the people that purchase high-end confocal [systems] are really interested in high-throughput imaging, or they're interested in assays that require the additional resolution of a confocal," Sjaastad told CBA News this week. "But we feel that you have to provide both technologies if you want to be a true provider in this business. I think there are customers who can appreciate or need either technology, and we wanted to provide both."

In addition, Sjaastad said, ImageXpress Ultra "dovetails right into our software platform. This was designed from the ground up to operate within the same … [image] acquisition, analysis, and informatics environment" as ImageXpress Micro.

As a result, it is feasible that Molecular Devices could sell the Ultra and the Micro as a pair, with both running on the same software.

"You could install the database in a central location, and then multiple instruments could all write into it," Sjaastad said. "Then people could have seats to the informatics and analysis software at their desk, and look at their data there." He added that such a scenario depends a lot on the network speeds at a given institution.

The Price is Right?

According to Sjaastad, Molecular Devices aims to sell the "fully loaded" version of ImageXpress Ultra for just under $500,000, while less equipped models — for example, those with fewer lasers — may sell for less. This price is a significant departure from current comparable systems, which fully loaded can push $1 million. GE Healthcare does not disclose pricing for the IN Cell 3000; however, according to various customers, the lower-end IN Cell 1000 itself costs approximately $450,000. Evotec has said that its Opera can cost as much as €700,000 ($855,000) for a fully equipped version.

"That's actually very significant," Ivan Baines, scientific coordinator and director of services and facilities at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, told CBA News. "The difference between $1 million and under $500K is literally the difference between managing to purchase it and not for most academic institutes.

"More or less, every research institute now has some cell-based screening activity," Baines added. "So far, the only reason that every lab doesn't have one is the cost. So that will be very, very welcome in the academic sector."

Marjo Simonen, a scientist in the lead discovery center at Novartis' Institutes for Biomedical Research, told CBA News that only very well-financed academic groups can currently afford a high-end confocal system, "but seldom are they doing big screens. Of course, some screening is also done of compounds and genes in academia, but I know that until recently, most of the imagers in academia are lamp based, something like the ArrayScan or the IN Cell 1000."

Sjaastad said that Molecular Devices is able to keep the cost of ImageXpress Ultra down for several reasons.

"There are shared components with the ImageXpress Micro, so development and production costs for the really high-end equipment are still controlled," he said. "Also, we're using solid-state lasers. The very expensive laser costs that are often built into these other instruments just aren't there."

As far as Molecular Devices' better performance claim goes, Sjaastad believes its instrument employs a superior method for achieving confocality.

"We're a point scanning confocal; the Opera is a spinning disc; and the IN Cell 3000 is a line scanner," he said. "There are inherent advantages in point scanning … in terms of image quality and resolution, but historically, building that technology to go fast enough for screening has proven difficult. But that's what we feel we have done here — we've brought the highest resolution version of confocal into the high-throughput realm."

Scouting the Competition

In some ways, Molecular Devices' most direct competition on the imaging front is now GE Healthcare, which is the only other company to offer both a high-throughput true confocal screening system (the IN Cell 3000) and a more affordable, lower throughput, lamp-based system designed more for assay development (the IN Cell 1000). Evotec is the only other company to offer a high-throughput confocal reader, but it doesn't market a lower-end lamp-based cell-analysis platform.

Some people may feel that the Cellomics ArrayScan VTI and BD Bioscience Pathway HT — both of which implement technology that enable confocal-like imaging without the use of lasers — can match much of the imaging enabled by confocal readers. But these instruments are still more appropriate for assay development and relatively low-throughput, high-content screens.

Novartis' Simonen said her group recently settled on a GE IN Cell 3000 for high-throughput screening, but owns several Cellomics ArrayScans for assay development.

"We bought [the IN Cell 3000] because we wanted to have something for screening," she said. "If you wanted to do smaller-scale assays, the lamp-based non-confocal instruments are good.

Simonen also pointed out that an advantage of the lower-end lamp-based systems is that "you can have as many different filters as you want, so you can choose any fluorophore. With the laser-based systems, you are limited to the fluorophores that you can excite with your laser lines."

According to Max Planck's Baines, the Cellomics instrument can't compete on speed. "The benefit is that it is extremely robust and stable. All of the top-end [confocal] machines are much less stable, so it's a challenge to perform a single screen and get all the way through it, particularly if you're doing five, 10, or 20 confocal sections per well."

The only other instruments that may compete for high-throughput cell-based screening are laser scanning cytometers, such as those marketed by TTP Labtech and CompuCyte. While these instruments, both of which use lasers, may be competitive in terms of throughput, they don't produce true fluorescence images, which some researchers deem necessary for true high-content assays.

Of course, looking at things from the opposite perspective, higher-end confocal systems may still be used for assay development and small-scale screens — another selling point that Molecular Devices hopes to communicate.

"This instrument has a user-configurable pinhole, which determines the amount of light getting to the sensors, which can determine the speed, and the trade-off is resolution," Sjaastad said. "We can stop the pinhole down to research-grade confocal optics, which is an advantage, we think, over some of our competitors, and would allow the instrument to function as a research confocal."

But purchasing an expensive high-end confocal system just to clog it up with assay development work may be akin to buying a Ferrari just to tool around city streets.

"Most people that are thinking about a confocal are thinking about an end-point assay where they're running 50 to 100 plates a day," Sjaastad said. "That just seems to be where the psyche of the industry is now, and they think of these CCD instruments as their live-cell kinetic machines. We expect the higher throughput community to take a look at this instrument first, but designing it to dovetail into our software environment should add a lot of ease of use and flexibility."

— Ben Butkus ([email protected])

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