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By Malorye Branca

July 11, 2002 | PISCATAWAY, N.J.-- International genomic tool heavyweight Amersham Biosciences, headquartered here, is moving into the informatics arena by acquiring a controlling stake in long-time partner, Salt Lake City-based Cimarron Software Inc.

Cimarron has more than 60 technical staff members and specializes in custom and off-the-shelf laboratory information management systems (LIMS) for genomic and proteomic research, and diagnostics laboratories. Amersham Biosciences, the life science business unit of Amersham PLC, provides instruments and reagents for genomics, proteomics, bioassays, and protein separation.

According to the deal announced in mid-May, Amersham has an option to acquire up to 100 percent of Cimarron over the next three years.

“We consider informatics to cover basic analysis, laboratory workflow, and software that evaluates the final data — or bioinformatics,” says Jerry Walker, vice president of informatics at Amersham Biosciences. Currently most of the company’s software belongs in the first category and comprises applications for use with Amersham’s many instruments, such as the MegaBACE gene sequencer. 

Amersham and Cimarron have been collaborating for several years, and are currently co-developing informatics products under the brand name Scierra, which will launch in the second half of this year. The first of these products will be for sample tracking and analysis in proteomics, gene expression analysis, genotyping, and DNA sequencing.

The next step will be to develop true bioinformatics applications. “We will be more specific about what we are going to do in bioinformatics in the next 12 months,” says Walker.

Amersham’s informatics strategy is unusual. “We come at this market from a different end — instruments -- and our strategy will be to build up from that customer base,” Walker says. With a sales force that spans more than 100 countries, Amersham is betting its marketing prowess will help get its products through the door.

Applera Corp.’s Applied Biosystems Group (ABI) made a similar move in April, taking over the marketing reins for the Celera Discovery System from sister company Celera Genomics Group. According to Walker, Amersham’s deal with Cimarron isn’t a reaction to ABI’s announcement. “If two or three large tool suppliers move into bioinformatics, that just reinforces the field’s importance,” he says. Users have long complained that leading toolmakers pay too little attention to informatics.

LIMS is a sweet spot to start from. “A focus on LIMS is good,” says George Lake, professor and chief information officer at the Institute for Systems Biology. “One of our big problems is bringing in new technologies.” Adding new tools requires flexible and efficient LIMS. “Most of the big commercial [software] systems are closed,” Lake says, “and that’s very problematic and different from what exists in other scientific disciplines, such particle physics.”

Scierra software will work with other manufacturer’s instruments, but “we have done the vast majority of our testing using our own instruments,” says Walker.

Steve Bayer, vice president of software engineering at Cimarron, says Scierra LIMS will be workflow-driven. “People in the laboratory don’t have to be aware of every step that has to be performed,” he says. “They simply direct the system to proceed to the next step, whatever it is.”

This aspect should be particularly relevant to groups that are at the high-throughput level.  “Labs used to assign a set of samples to a person,” says Bayer.  “Now, you are dealing with such an explosion of data and large numbers of samples that you are constantly matching samples across projects.”

Amersham is making its move into informatics at this time partly because of changes in the industry.  “Some of the genome centers, for example, are reinventing themselves and turning into proteomics and systems biology centers,” says Walker. And more academic centers are adopting high-throughput technologies. “When MegaBACE hit the broader marketplace, it became clear that informatics was an area we had to address,” he says.




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