Varian bids to woo European pharma clients with new lab

January 10, 2005

Varian has been quick to announce makeover plans for the U.K. premises of its latest acquisition. The Palo Alto, CA, provider of NMR and MR instruments completed its purchase of Magnex Scientific Nov. 3. The next day it announced that Magnex’s state-of-the-art Magnet Technology Center close to Oxford would be reconfigured to house a new MR applications laboratory. Varian executives hope that the demo lab will help the company gain further leverage in the growing European market for biomedical imaging.

Varian has been quick to announce makeover plans for the U.K. premises of its latest acquisition. The Palo Alto, CA, provider of NMR and MR instruments completed its purchase of Magnex Scientific Nov. 3. The next day it announced that Magnex's state-of-the-art Magnet Technology Center close to Oxford would be reconfigured to house a new MR applications laboratory. Varian executives hope that the demo lab will help the company gain further leverage in the growing European market for biomedical imaging.

Varian already has one Imaging Applications Laboratory at its Palo Alto site. The facility houses two MR scanners designed for small animal imaging. Prospective customers visit the site to see the scanners in action. Varian's engineering R&D staff may also use the in situ MR equipment to test upgrades. The newly planned U.K. laboratory will be configured along similar lines, hosting two of Varian's animal MR units, which will be used both for demonstration and as a test bed for innovation.

The market for dedicated animal scanners is being buoyed in Europe - as in the U.S. - by interest in imaging as a tool for drug discovery, according to Jan Tschida, Varian's vice president and general manager of NMR systems.

Noticeable growth in this arena, which started a couple years ago, has proved to be a significant development in the marketplace, she said. This is particularly true in the U.K., where biomedical research is thriving. Varian is also building a solid customer base for animal MRI in Germany and Switzerland.

"Pharmaceutical companies are finding that they are able to track an animal over a period of time using MR. With other methodologies, obviously, you have to sacrifice the animal at particular points in time to determine toxicity," Tschida said. "Using MRI, they can actually maintain the animal for a longer time and track the progression of drug treatment."

Imaging studies on rats and genetically engineered mice may also better identify at an early stage drugs that have the most potential. This has clear financial benefits for pharmaceutical companies.

Yet the topic of animal experimentation - however worthy or humane - is particularly sensitive in the U.K. right now. Over the past year, animal rights activists have increased their efforts against biomedical research on animals. The University of Oxford was forced to halt work on an £18 million ($33 million) biomedical research laboratory in July due to claims that protestors were harassing building contractors. This move follows the University of Cambridge's decision in January to abandon plans to build a £24 million ($44 million) primate research center, given the spiraling cost of protecting staff and premises.

Although Varian's MR scanners are designed to image live mice, rats, or rabbits, animals will not be kept at the planned Oxford imaging applications laboratory. Nor are they housed at the Palo Alto facility, Tschida said.

"All the demonstrations are done using phantoms, that is, samples that mimic an animal," she said. "We don't plan to have any animal care facilities in the U.S. or the U.K."

The laboratory is due to open in early 2005, once space at the Magnex site has been reconfigured for its new use. Instrumentation for mass spectrometry measurements will also be fitted in due course. Varian would like the site to become a center of excellence in information-rich detection, Tschida said. Executives have neither ruled in nor ruled out the addition of alternative radiological modalities to Varian's imaging portfolio in future.

"Our current focus is on MRI, and we continue to evaluate opportunities in information-srich detection," Tschida said.