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Following Amersham Acquisition, GE Plans to Expand Proteomics Portfolio

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General Electric Healthcare can be expected to prioritize proteomics and to “beef up” proteomics R&D funding following the close of its acquisition of Amersham last week, according to a company executive who came on board from Amersham Biosciences.

“Proteomics had been identified as a priority for Biosciences before the acquisition, and all indications that we’re getting from discussions with our GE colleagues is that this will continue going forward,” John Burczak, vice president of North American product development for discovery systems, told ProteoMonitor. He added that Amersham’s R&D investments in proteomics have been on the upswing over the last couple of years, and that this trend is likely to continue beyond the acquisition.

The nature of Amersham’s proteomics marketing and distribution collaboration with Thermo Electron is not expected to change following the acquisition, according to Burczak. But the company plans to add protein arrays to its proteomics portfolio, as well as to develop additional offerings in discovery and functional proteomics.

GE closed the deal on April 8, officially launching a new division, GE Healthcare, which former Amersham CEO Bill Castell will head up as CEO. GE Healthcare, worth a total of $14 billion, will be divided into an $11 billion Healthcare Technologies division — led by former GE Medical Systems exec Joe Hogan; and a $3 billion Healthcare Biosciences division — led by former Amersham chief operating officer Peter Loescher. The former Amersham Biosciences’ discovery systems and protein separations units will now reside within Healthcare Biosciences. GE Healthcare will be headquartered in Chalfont St. Giles, UK, with the Biosciences headquarters in Little Chalfont, UK. Discovery systems will remain where it is, in Piscataway, NJ.

When GE announced last October that it would acquire Amersham PLC for £5.7 billion ($9.5 billion), speculation immediately abounded that the larger company — which took in $33 billion in revenue in the first quarter of this year — would sell off Amersham’s Biosciences unit (see PM 10-17-03). In particular, protein separations was rumored to be on the chopping block, and the future of discovery systems also seemed unclear. But former Amersham Biosciences senior vice president of genomics Trevor Hawkins — now senior vice president of development and new business initiatives, discovery systems at GE Healthcare Biosciences — told ProteoMonitor and other GenomeWeb publications last week that both divisions were to become part of the larger GE vision. As part of this vision, the Amersham name would eventually dissolve, he said, as the company undergoes an aggressive re-branding process.

“Some of the great things we’re starting to look at is, ‘how we can take the products and services in protein separations and discovery systems and begin to apply those in the markets that are served on the other side of the business in the mainstream healthcare market,’” Hawkins said. In particular, Hawkins said that GE Healthcare would seek to further develop Amersham’s CodeLink microarray platform — in part by extending the platform to include protein arrays.

“We’re very early on in just starting this, but we have a big boost working on this in that we’ll be leveraging what we have out of CodeLink,” Burczak said, referring to the protein arrays. Amersham first announced its intention to expand CodeLink to include proteins back when it acquired the technology from Motorola in July 2002 (see sister publication BioArray News, 8-2-02). Now Hawkins calls protein array-based products one of “three basic markets” that CodeLink will serve going forward — the other two being gene expression and SNP analysis; and diagnostics. Burczak said that GE Healthcare is likely to finally release CodeLink’s first protein array product, a “self-spotter” blank slide, in the fourth quarter of this year. The first content array — an antibody array — is slated to go to market early next year. If it does release protein array products as promised, GE Healthcare will join at least three other large instrument companies —PerkinElmer, Beckman Coulter, and Invitrogen (see PM 2-10-03, 11-7-03, 3-26-04, 4-9-04) — that currently offer protein array products as part of their proteomics platforms.

Burczak said that GE would look at “a variety of flavors,” in developing protein content array products, that would allow, in addition to capture and quantitation, the ability to do DIGE-like differential analysis between two samples on a chip. “[We’re] looking at being able to do two color[s] of differential analysis where you might have disease state versus healthy tissue, looking at which proteins are turned on or expressed and to what stage,” he said.

GE will look to expand in other areas of proteomics as well, Burczak said, with a particular focus on three areas: sample preparation, protein characterization, and protein function. In the area of sample preparation, the company will develop technologies to fish for low-abundance proteins in complex sample mixtures. In addition, GE is “not only looking at the technology to do [the fishing], but looking at automation to make this happen in a higher throughput or more robust fashion,” Burczak said. In terms of protein characterization, he said, GE would be focusing on post-translational modifications, and on developing chemistries for better protein fragmentation and better quantitation in mass spec analysis. In the area of protein function, the InCell Analyzer platform that Amersham recently released will headline the bill. InCell tracks proteins in vivo by following a fluorescent tag that has been added to the gene prior to protein expression. The technology, first developed at a company called Praelux that Amersham acquired several years ago, “will enable us to get more towards cellular function, not just cataloging what proteins exist,” according to Burczak. He said that though the InCell Analyzer has already been released, “what’s most important is there’s going to be a whole reagent trail that comes behind it” in the coming months.

Burczak said that GE’s existing informatics and image analysis capabilities would also add to the proteomics platform. “When you use something like microarrays or mass spec, you create these huge data files and they’ve got some nice technology that [GE] already use[s], like in CT scans or in ultrasounds, where they take a great deal of information and compress it,” Burczak said. “You can imagine that this technology could be used for DNA sequencing, for gene expression arrays, for protein arrays, [and] 2D gel differential experiments.” He said further that GE’s image analysis capabilities “will do a lot for us, as far as being able to follow molecules as they move through cells” with the InCell platform.

But the most important element that GE adds to what once was Amersham Biosciences, according to Hawkins, is just its sheer enormity. “We believe there is no other company positioned to be able to provide solutions that span such a broad range,” he said.

—KAM

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