In a sign that high-throughput cell biology may be the next hot area in the bioinformatics market, image informatics veteran Media Cybernetics last week acquired Pittsburgh-based QED Imaging, a four-person firm that develops software for live-cell microscopy.
Media Cybernetics, based in Silver Spring, Md., was founded in 1981, and its flagship image analysis product, Image-Pro, has been on the market for 17 years. The company is no stranger to the life sciences: It sells the Gel-Pro Analyzer and Array-Pro Analyzer packages for 1D gel and microarray analysis, respectively, and also has a number of life science customers for Image-Pro, according to Dean Sequera, vice president of marketing and product development at Media Cybernetics. Sequera said that about 60 percent of the company’s current business comes from the life sciences, and 15 percent is from genomics.
The company has dabbled a bit in the area of live-cell microscopy, “but not to the level that QED Imaging has done,” said Sequera. “QED is very strong in advanced microscopy, where they are looking at even more variables than imaging, other variables such as pH, oxygen content, temperature — those sorts of things that are important in life science imaging,” he said.
QED’s founder, Michel Nederlof, served as the director of imaging technology at the Center for Fluorescence Research at Carnegie Mellon University, and also co-founded Pittsburgh-based Cellomics with fellow Carnegie Mellon microscopy alum Lansing Taylor. Sequera said that Media Cybernetics intends to retain the entire QED staff, which is “renowned in scientific circles, so that gives us contacts at very high levels.”
The QED acquisition gives Media Cybernetics a solid presence in the area of sub-cellular image analysis, which is beginning to take off as more and more biology labs turn to high-throughput cell-based screening for both drug discovery and basic research. But Media Cybernetics will also be able to improve upon QED’s products a bit, Sequera said. “Their tools are adequate, but certainly not strong in the characterization of objects within images. … We have more ability to describe the objects that are identified.”
In addition, the QED acquisition fits in nicely with IQbase, a new product the company launched last spring for archiving large sets of image data. IQbase is an object-oriented database that can store images along with metadata fields describing where the image came from, experimental conditions, and other variables. According to Sequera, the object-oriented architecture offers an advantage over competing relational products, such as Scimagix’s Scientific Image Management System, because data fields associated with images can be edited on an image-by-image basis without changing the structure of the entire database, and the data can be mined “down to the pixel level.”
QED’s ability to capture additional variables associated with cellular behavior meshes well with the IQbase product, Sequera said. Just as genomics has pushed researchers beyond gene-by-gene studies toward experiments involving thousands of genes at a time, “scientists and production people are not looking at just a single image and a single variable anymore, but they’re looking at collections of images over many variables,” he said. “We see this as the direction of the future. It used to be hard just to collect a single image, but now you can do it in seconds. And storage is rather cheap. So now that they have all this information, they need to sort it out.”
Sequera said that the market for high-throughput cell-based screening “is certainly expanding, and there are a lot more companies entering the fray.” But because Media Cybernetics focuses solely on imaging, and not robotics, liquid handling, or any of the other technology areas associated with the field, he said the company should be able to serve as a supplier for many companies entering the space. For example, Media Cybernetics already has a reseller agreement for its Image-Pro software with Cellomics, he noted.
Mark Collins, senior manager of bioinformatics at Cellomics, said that the company does offer an interface between its own software and Image-Pro, primarily for early adopters of Cellomics’ platform who wanted to write their own algorithms. Regarding the QED acquisition, “competition is always good,” Collins said. “It shows that the field is maturing when people begin snapping up little players to get into this area.”
As far as Collins is concerned, the age of image informatics for high-content screening is still in its infancy. “As this area matures, it will become more of an information problem,” he said. While the entire human genome can fit on a DVD, he estimated that the cellome — the set of all states that a particular cell could enter, based on its components — “will be in the hundreds, if not thousands, of petabytes.”