By John Russell
February 24, 2010 | Encouraged by its thriving instrument business, UK-based TTP LabTech is venturing into the high content screening (HCS) services market. Besides a general uptick in interest around cell-based assays, the financial pressures on both large biopharma and smaller biotechs are already starting to make the move look smart.
“I was recently meeting with a large pharmaceutical company and one of their assay development scientists, a director actually, cut straight to the bottom line. They said ‘we currently can’t invest in the technology due to budget constraints, however we are generally looking at the more viable option of outsourcing; we can utilize different budgeting streams ’” says Jason Mundin, head of LabTech’s new screening initiative.
Ten-year-old LabTech, a member of The Technology Partnership (TTP), is well known for its portfolio of instruments which not only includes the Acumen eX3 HCS platform, but also automated sample storage & retrieval (ComPOUND), liquid handlers (mosquito), acoustic biosensor (RAPid4) analysis platform, and sample transport (Lab2Lab) product lines. The company rolled out its new services offering earlier this month.
Unlike many drug discovery technology providers, TTP LabTech has been largely unaffected by the macro economic slowdown. The company reported 25 percent growth in revenue for fiscal 2009. Such success has kept the company focused on its instrument business not services, Mundin says.
“This idea isn’t new, indeed we’ve been asked about providing services before, however now the timing seems right so I’ve championed the service internally as I could see we were potentially missing a whole range of customers that initially don’t want to make that investment (instrument purchase) or those whose needs don’t justify owning an instrument 24X7 or for whom it is simply easier to outsource because of the way their budgets are structured.”
Financing aside, a variety of factors have fanned recent enthusiasm for cell-based assays, not least of which includes improved availability of high quality cell lines and human primary cells, improved scanning and informatics technology, and disappointment with various animal models.
Mundin contends LabTech’s proprietary laser-based platform, Acumen eX3, offers important advantages over CCD-based scanning for many screening applications.
The Acumen uses up to three lasers (which scan at 405, 488 and 633 nm) and simultaneous four-color detection for each laser to provide content-rich data. LabTech says this permits the use of a wide range of fluorescent reagents in multiplexed assays. The lasers scan an area equivalent to four wells of a 96-well plate.
“It’s quick. It’s very sensitive. It’s flexible in terms of being able to use everything from 96-well plates to 384-, 1536-well plates. It’s not as labor-intensive as using some of the other imaging-based systems where you generate huge amounts of data [and] sometimes it can be a bit subjective as to how you analyze the data,” says Mundin.
For screening applications in which the goal is to quickly identify hits, Mundin says the Acumen platform is ideal. “You then have the option to follow up on those hits with a CCD–based imager at a later date where appropriate.”
The company has a long list of applications (e.g., target identification, cytotoxicity) on its web site. In terms of therapeutic areas oncology is one area that’s drawn early interest because of the technology’s strength in cell cycle analysis and protein kinase profiling.
"But really if you’ve got a cell-based assay and you can detect an endpoint with a fluorescent marker, the Acumen will work,” says Mundin, who notes one interesting use that’s attracting interest is RNAi screening, “because you can screen through large libraries very quickly, and some of our collaborators have used it for genome-wide RNAi screens.”
There are two forms of the service, named simply the Standard Service and Full Service.
In the standard service, “the client does all the cell-based work, and can take the experiment all the way through to the point where they fix the cells and then simply ship the plates to us. We scan them and do the data analysis. That fits really well for people who want to maintain control and to keep the assay in house,” he says.
Assay control is often an important client consideration, particularly when scarce cells (primary cells or precious cell lines) or difficult-to-handle cells are involved as these may represent key company assets.
The full service is a soup-to-nuts offering. “Send us your compounds and we’ll do everything: the cell culture, the compound treatment, the whole study,” explains Mundin. “Clients have flexibility to outsource as much or as little as they want to. Some people are already running these cell-based assays in house but they want to be able to analyze the experiment using a high content platform quickly.”
“To date the standard service appears to be slightly more popular but we’re at an early stage. I suspect that once we have talked to more companies the level of adoption of the two offerings will be similar. From our perspective we’re happy to provide both options to give the customer flexibility in how they access high-content data.”
“We’re confident there’s a market for a high content screening service. The fact that we’ve been successful selling our instrument and the number of publications which include high content data suggests there is a real appetite for this type of data. The question for the customer is how best to access it,” he says. “Our approach initially is to be opportunistic, see how the market reacts to the screening service [and] and let the market dictate the direction we develop in terms of applications or therapeutic area focus. At a later date we may decide to focus in particular areas if it looks appropriate”
One early surprise has been a stronger-than-expected interest from academics, says Mundin. It’s also not yet clear how many services customers will evolve into instrument buyers. At this writing, TTP was about to start a validation study with its first customer.
For present, all screening will be conducted from TTP’s headquarters just outside Cambridge in the U.K. TTP also has sales offices in Boston and Shanghai and Mundin says in the future the company may want to have the capability to run assays in the US or China.
Other companies are offering high content screening and Mundin says it is very difficult to get a good feel for how successful they’ve been. “As far as I know they are all using slightly different types of technology platforms. Companies such as EVOTEC undertake high content screening as part of their portfolio so we are up against some heavyweight companies,” he says. “One way we differentiate ourselves is the fact that it’s an instrument and technology we developed and that we understand better than anybody else. We can make that instrument do things that others probably can’t.”