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Amersham CEO Says Informatics, Alongside Imaging, Will Bring His Firm into the GE Fold

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The obvious common ground in General Electric’s recent $9.5 billion all-stock bid to acquire Amersham PLC is imaging systems, but it may be informatics that brings the two companies’ capabilities together.

GE Medical Systems is a market leader in diagnostic imaging systems such as magnetic resonance, computer tomography, and positron emission tomography; and more than half of Amersham’s $2.7 billion in annual revenues are from imaging contrast agents sold through its Health division. Officials of the two firms said that the mission of the combined entity is to drive molecular imaging technology into personalized medicine, but according to Amersham’s CEO, that vision will require new informatics technology to link genomic- and proteomics-scale data from Amersham’s Biosciences unit with GE’s cell- and tissue-level imaging capabilities.

“The thing I’m really excited about is combining informatics capabilities,” said Sir William Castell, Amersham’s CEO, during a conference call to discuss the acquisition on Oct. 10. “I really want the referring physician to have all the data about function, anatomy, blood chemistry, cholesterol levels, genetic predisposition, and genetic variation, and I want it in front of him when he’s looking at his patient.” With the combined strengths of Amersham and GE, he said, “We can start to grasp that vision.”

The acquisition must still be approved by shareholders and regulators, a process that should be wrapped up in the first half of 2004, according to GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt. When complete, it will create a new business within GE called GE Healthcare Technologies that combines Amersham’s Health and Bioscience divisions with GE Medical Systems and is expected to bring in $13 billion in annual revenue. Castell will serve as CEO of the new business.

Dispelling early rumors that GE was interested only in Amersham’s Health business and not its Biosciences division, which is outside the scope of GE’s current business and not as profitable, Immelt stressed GE’s interest in all of Amersham’s components. “We like the Amersham set of businesses,” he said in the conference call. “We very much like the Biosciences business. It’s our expectation to keep all the businesses associated here and add to them.”

As an example of GE’s commitment to “finding things that are part of our continuum and building them over time,” Immelt noted that GE’s healthcare IT business, non-existent in 1997, now posts annual sales of $2 billion. Immelt said that there are no plans to cut back on R&D spending for any of Amersham’s business units, giving GE Healthcare Technologies an annual R&D budget of around $1.2 billion.

According to Castell, it’s likely that GE will extend its current healthcare IT capabilities to embrace Amersham’s technology platforms. “Amersham has been slow in developing its software in support of its biopharmaceutical diagnostics,” he said. The company is currently conducting a trial of 3,000 diabetics in Japan to study the development of heart disease in the diabetic population. “We’re capturing that data, and we’re going to build it into an algorithm so that in five years’ time, you’ll be able to look at your patient’s heart, get the best image match against the other 3,000 hearts in that database, and you’ll know what happens with the progression of the disease,” he said. With GE’s help, he added, “We’re going to do more of that and are going to have the resources to do that. Now we have the IT people in GE who … this is their bread and butter.”

GE already has a jump on bringing genomic and proteomic data into the medical imaging process. The company supports a team of around 12 bioinformaticists as part of its molecular imaging research group at its Niskayuna, NY, Global Research Center [BioInform 07-04-03]. The team has spent the past two and a half years developing a number of software tools to support diagnostic molecular imaging in the areas of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. Using bioinformatics techniques very similar to those used for drug discovery, the group’s work supports the discovery of new compounds that can be injected into the body, bind to a molecular target, and then be detected by a PET or MRI scan in order to serve as a pre-symptomatic indicator of a disease.

According to Joe Hogan, CEO of GE Medical Systems, discovery technologies like bioinformatics, genomics, and proteomics will be an important part of the company’s future in molecular diagnostics and personalized medicine. “If you look long-term at the drug discovery process, where Amersham is so strong now, the future imaging agents that we’re all going to be dealing with are going to spring from that type of work,” he said during the conference call. “We’ve seen that in our own Global Research Center, we’ve seen it through Amersham’s work, and that’s where these technologies merge together, in these new contrast agents and imaging agents that realize themselves in personalized medicine.”

GE’s internal informatics development does not overlap with Amersham’s core informatics business, which is based on its Scierra LIMS offering and partnerships with third-party providers. At press time, it was not yet clear how the pending acquisition would impact this business. BioInform contacted several of Amersham’s bioinformatics software partners, who declined to comment for this article. As one noted, if Amersham does indeed remain intact as the GE executives promise, “it won’t have any effect, either positive or negative, on our business.”

— BT

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