GE Global Research’s Biosciences Technology Organization is like a small biotechnology company, leaders say, that in five years made significant strides in an industry where developments can take decades.
Driving the progress are the 60 researchers spread among five research labs with expertise in biology and organic chemistry, including molecular imaging, computational biology, molecular and cell biology, and biochemistry and biological engineering.
The labs take up 40,000 square feet at GE’s Global Research facilities in Niskayuna.
“Over the last decade, we experienced somewhat of a technology renaissance. We have invested more than $150 million to renovate and expand our research facilities in Niskayuna, while also opening two new research centers globally,” Mark Little, senior vice president and director of GE Global Research, told The Gazette via email. “Looking ahead, I expect we will continue to expand our global research footprint to seize and meet new market opportunities around the world. As we expand these connections, our research headquarters in Niskayuna will continue to be a primary focal point and connection to our business interests and customers abroad.”
GE laid the foundation for its Biosciences unit in 2002 when it started advanced technology programs at the research center. GE’s acquisition of Amersham, a company specializing in imaging agents along with cellular and protein research tools, primed the official launch of the Biosciences unit in August 2004 as several employees from Amersham joined GE.
One of them was Christoph Hergersberg, who had overseen more than 20 people doing research at Amersham Biosciences Discovery Systems but became the global technology leader for biosciences.
The interdisciplinary collaboration of people needed to not only understand the health issues behind the technology but to create the technology and create innovation, according to Hergersberg, who said the projects undertaken in the past five years “are at the interface of technologies, engineering and biology.”
Hergersberg hopes the “small biotech company known as GE” will grow sensibly in the next five years.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said. “But I think we’ve done some good steps toward the goal of giving the right medication to the right patient at the right time.”
Part of that work involves obesity prevention.
GE is helping Nestle — the world’s largest seller of water, the owner of Lean Cuisine, Jenny Craig and a large portfolio of wellness-related businesses — distinguish between good fat and bad fat, supporting Nestle Research Center’s own studies with body composition, metabolic status, diet and lifestyle habits.
The partnership became official in May 2008 but work began in 2009 and will continue this year, according to biomedical engineer Megan Rothney, who works in the computational biology and biostatistics lab.
The partnership combines Nestle’s large database of metabolite profiles — hormone blood markers that relate to a person’s metabolic health — with GE’s imaging technology, according to Rothney.
“So we’re really learning a lot from them about that while we’re giving them access to this imaging technology, which is something they’re never had before. So it is not about how much fat you have in your body it’s where it’s located that seems to affect how good or bad it is for your health,” she said.
Using dual energy X-ray absorbed tometry, a technology normally usually used for bone density assessments, GE can quantify fat.
“Clinically though, that has not yet been widely accepted. One of the things that we’re working with Nestle to do is to tie the measures of fat to clinical outcomes,” Rothney said.
Last year focused on data collection, but this year is about data analysis.
“We’re starting to understand the profiles of these metabolites relating them to the fat and relating those to clinical outcomes,” she said.
DNA AND DIAGNOSIS
One of the projects gaining funding from the National Institutes of Health is related to GE’s strides in DNA sequencing technology, and the man behind that is Biosciences Lab operations manager John Nelson, a molecular biologist who has had over two dozen patent applications submitted and has taken projects from concept to commercialization for GE Healthcare’s product mix.
He said one of his five projects for 2010 involves a DNA amplification kit that has the potential to drive innovations in diagnosis and preventative care twenty years from now.
This year, GE will continue developing a microscope that will aid mapping of an individual’s DNA by putting it on a slide, taking pictures of it, and assembling the information so that it will be ready for analysis. The project, called “Closed Complex DNA Sequencing,” is being funded by a grant through the National Institutes of Health. Other projects involve molecular diagnostics, Nelson said.
One of GE Biosciences’ more noteworthy achievements was reached in March 2009.
A team of engineers and scientists made an optical imaging system to show a tumor in real-time, during surgery, using a special fluorescent agent that targets the tumor, including its margins. The technology could hit hospitals within the next five years and be used to reduce recurrences of cancers not removed the first time.
As a Polly Pocket toy sits on a microscope cart in GE’s optical imaging lab, Kathleen Bove, manager of the N Vivo Molecular Imaging Lab, said research for sophisticated surgical tools begins at the basic level.
“We start with primitive things and we use them to prove our point and make our case for the business and then hopefully turn things into products,” she said.
When GE acquired Amersham, it created new opportunities for biologists like Bove, who was hired from a local VA hospital and went to work on one of GE’s most promising imaging projects.
Bove said the lab is working on new imaging technology that allows users to see into near infrared wavelengths — beyond what the naked eye can see — along with injected contrast agents that will help aid imaging analysis for surgeons.
GE is working toward adapting the technology to more minimally invasive procedures, Bove said.
The other side of the team working on imaging projects can be found with principal engineer Robert Filkins and John Burczack, advanced technology program leader in molecular imaging and diagnostics, who said the Global Research Center is taking GE’s radiology business and adding pathology imaging components.
“It’s a space that largely hasn’t changed in a hundred years since the invention of the microscope,” said Filkins. “It’s very manual — look at tissue in a microscope that has been stained. We see a large opportunity to improve outcomes by choosing the appropriate treatment choice.”
In the same way that GE created digital X-rays, the company is now making digital images available with pathology slides.
Such work has created a new market for GE Healthcare, according to Burczack.
In May 2008, GE Healthcare partnered with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to form the company Omnix, which will commercialize the prototype scanner instrument Filkins helped create.
The product is expected to help doctors get more information from slides to detect and treat disease. The digital nature of the information is also expected to help health professionals share data and provide virtual consultations via the Internet.
The head of GE Global Research said it is an absolute thrill to work with the best and brightest scientists and engineers in the world and as a leader he tries to take on the role of facilitator.
“You can’t help but be inspired by the passion and commitment they bring to the job every day. They truly want to make the world a better place to live,” Little said. “I see my job as making sure our businesses’ needs are being met and that we are positioned well for the long term.
“One of the best things I can do is to make sure our technologists have a clear idea of our strategic goals and priorities. At the same time, it’s important that we have an environment where people can express and explore new ideas. It’s striking the right balance between focus and creativity that we are constantly striving to meet.”
Despite a tough 2009 for the U.S. and global economy, Little said he was proud that GE did not miss a beat when it came to technology.
“With the opening of the new digital X-ray production facility in North Greenbush and the announcement of GE’s new battery business in Schenectady, we know that investing in technology is the best way to strengthen and grow your company. This is especially true when the economy is down,” Little said. “Like 2009, 2010 is going to be another challenging year, but we are beginning to see signs of improvement that point to a more positive outlook for the global economy in 2011. Through it all, our commitment to technology will remain stronger than ever.
“The main challenge for Global Research will be to continue to develop and deliver great technology for our businesses. Our businesses are counting on us to provide a steady pipeline of new technologies that will enable them to steer through this difficult economic cycle and help them emerge in an even better position to compete and grow.”
Reach Gazette reporter Ameerah Cetawayo at 395-3040 or [email protected].