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PerkinElmer's Path to Biodiscovery

Predict. Prevent. Personalize. Protect.

May 12, 2008 | From genetic screening and medical imaging to drug discovery and analytical sciences, PerkinElmer believes its array of predictive diagnostic and detection technologies, buoyed by several recent acquisitions including Evotec and ViaCell, puts the $1.8-billion company in excellent position to partner with pharma. In June 2006, drug industry veteran Richard Eglen joined PerkinElmer, where he is now president of Bio-discovery (formerly Molecular Medicine), one of the firm's four major divisions, embracing all of the discovery technologies the company has acquired since 2000. (The other divisions are Analytical Sciences, Genetic Screening, and OptoElectronics and Laboratory Services.) Eglen spent two decades at Syntex Research and Hoffman-LaRoche, where he ran neuroscience drug discovery, before joining DiscoveRx Corporation in 2000.

Eglen recently spoke to Bio•IT World's Kevin Davies about the company's alliance with biopharma and the role that instrumentation, including cellular science and high-throughput screening, can play in enhancing drug development.

Bio•IT World: How would you describe PerkinElmer's overall mission?

Eglen: The company is very much thought of in terms of four areas, which all start with "P." One would be predictive medicine - that relates to the genetic screening area of the company. Another is protection and that's environmental analysis, protection of the individual from environmental contaminations. That relates to analytical substances. The third relates to drug discovery, in terms of personalized medicine. And the fourth is providing services to various organizations.

You run the Bio-discovery division. What's in the group's portfolio?

The portfolio of Bio-discovery covers reagents, automated liquid handling systems, detection instruments, and cellular imaging technologies. Each of these are managed in separate business units. In terms of reagents, we have a large portfolio of radioisotope products. In fact, PerkinElmer is the leading provider of long-lived nuclides - that's a very large part of our business, by virtue of the acquisition of New England Nuclear. As an example of our business here, biotechs and pharmas will come to us saying, "We have a lead candidate that we need labeling with a tritium or 14-C," then we would do the labeling and they would take that forward in their research.

We've also built up a strong portfolio of non-radioactive reagent systems positioned for high-throughput screening (HTS). Here we have developed several platforms for fluorescent technologies, in particular time-resolved fluorescent systems (TR-FRET), as well as a large series of luminescent technologies. The areas of kinases and G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) are two areas of major emphasis for PerkinElmer using these technologies. In fact, we have one of the largest offerings of technologies for these two major target classes. In much of drug discovery, there is a growing desire to do HTS in terms of cellular assays. We've aggressively moved in that direction, both in the area of being able to do fluorescent or luminescent detection in the intact cell, but also have these technologies amenable to classical HTS techniques i.e. miniaturization, automated liquid dispensing, fluid handling, detection, and so on.                                        

You're using HTS in a broad sense, including cellular assays?

People like to do screening now with cells, and the technology has accelerated such that that's now very, very doable. Currently, you have on the one hand the ability to do HTS with cells in which you have a detector looking into a microtiter plate, but the cells are intact. The other approach is using high-throughput confocal imaging. And you can do that now with systems that have genuine high-throughput confocality, where the speed is very similar to the throughput of a classical HTS campaign.

PerkinElmer has moved into this area by acquisition. For example, we acquired Euroscreen in Belgium, which brought in a luminescent cell-based technology. And we've also acquired companies like Evotec in Germany that have the high-throughput confocal systems. And we've also brought in a powerful software dimension to that by buying a British software company, Improvision, that's brought in software to do cellular analysis. This enables one to reconstitute the cellular images in three dimensions, amongst other things.

How do you engage with the pharmaceutical community? Do you offer services based on in-house expertise?

We do two things: we offer assay kits  that enable them to undertake HTS. In some areas, such as GPCRs, we actually sell the cells themselves, as well as licensing technology that enables customers to manipulate the cells, for example putting in a luminescent reporter such as Aequorin. We also sell frozen cells, whereby companies that don't want to set up cell culture groups may want to buy large amounts of cells "HTS" ready - they arrive on a Monday, they'll do the screen on a Tuesday. Furthermore, we also offer our "On-point" assay development services to pharma, where they could come to us and say, "We need you to develop a GPCR assay or a kinase assay with your technologies. Can you do that and send the assay back to us?" And they'll then do the screen. An area we haven't gone into is actually doing the screen ourselves.

What sort of high-throughput screenings might you do?

There's a great deal of interest now looking at kinase inhibitors in a primary cell line that reflects the disease states, such as cancer. We currently sell assay kits that enable customers to screen compounds in primary cells that reflect the action of compounds on a particular sort of cancer cell. One reason to do such an assay is that often the lesion in the cancer is disregulation of the kinase. Here, we wouldn't undertake the screen, but we would provide the cell or the assay development around the cell for the customer. In the area of GPCRs, we can provide either the cell line or we can sell the GPCRs expressed in the cell that happens to have a particular photoprotein reporter system, or both.

Are you still on the acquisition path?

Well, the acquisition of Evotec and Improvision has really taken PerkinElmer into the cellular imaging area, and we did that because it builds on our cellular science capabilities. However, we consider that cellular imaging - both in drug discovery and academic research - is a good strategic direction. I think we've built that out very well in terms of the instrumentation and the software but we continue to evaluate reagent systems for imaging.

What trends do you see within the drug discovery community?

There are three major areas, one of which is cellular science. As I mentioned above, there's an interest in doing cellular biology, not just in immortalized cells, but in cells that reflect the disease, like primary cells. I think the ability to develop technologies that will enhance screening and research with primary cells is a strong strategic direction. That's one of the reasons why imaging is gaining wide acceptance in both screening and basic research.

But other trends in pharma are now coming quite rapidly, partly due to the cost pressures under which they operate. This implies that significant activities like miniaturization and the requirement for optimized and precise instrumentation become a necessity. In particular, miniaturization mandates that you have exquisitely precise liquid handling and sensitive detection.

PerkinElmer now has a whole range of automated instrumentation and detection systems that will enable customers to do highly miniaturized assays in an automated fashion. Another area emerging is the interest of pharma in looking at screening biologics in addition to small molecules. We now have developed our instrumentation systems that will work equally well with biologics, as they will with a classical small molecule library.

What are examples of those instruments?

In the area of antibody screening, we have assay systems which are ELISAs, but that do not require time consuming wash steps. Consequently they're highly automatable and ideal for HTS. When used in conjunction with our instruments such as the EnVision and a liquid handling workstation such as JANUS, a complete solution can be offered. Furthermore, high-throughput cell imaging is ideal for looking at these high-throughput screens of cell responses. The Opera, our high-throughput confocal analysis system, is used exactly in this area.

Another interesting area I'd like to emphasize is the increased outsourcing activities in biopharma. Our decision to offer an assay development service was absolutely in response to that demand. We were discussing with many pharmas, "We can be your complete solution provider," but they responded, "Well, one missing item is that you don't do assay development." Furthermore, automation requirements vary on a customer to customer basis. We've started offering customized liquid handling and integration systems services to address unique automation requirements. Through our On-Point services business, we can now offer both assay development and customized instrumentation offerings addressing both standard and unique customer needs. In addition, PerkinElmer offers one of the most extensive portfolios of multi-mode detection instrumentation enabling utilization for most assay methodologies including absorbance, fluorescence, luminescence, time-resolved fluorescence, and others.

What strategic challenges are confronting the drug discovery industry?

Clearly they are concerned about the innovation gap in the drug industry, in general. Many recent articles discuss the problem of declining number of drug registrations, even though there is increased investment in R&D. So the question has to be asked: "Where's the payoff?" I think many companies are certainly asking for screening technologies that will enable them to discover better things faster. And that's where we can really facilitate drug discovery. Biopharma is also looking for technologies to enable them to identify drugs that can predict clinical activity better. This means moving to different sorts of technologies that historically have been hard to use in a high throughput manner. Primary cells are one example.

How broad is your customer base beyond big Pharma?

Whilst the majority of the big Pharmas are our customers, we also have a strong presence in the small to medium-sized biotechs as well. We also go to academic groups, particularly to the large academic groups with substantial funding to undertake high-throughput screening or high-throughput confocal imaging. An important part of our business is that we also go to the smaller academic labs. These customer bases are one of the reasons why we are called Bio-discovery now, as opposed to Molecular Medicine. The new name speaks towards all areas of biological discovery. 


This article appeared in Bio-IT World Magazine. 
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