TORONTO—Micro-ultrasound specialist VisualSonics announced an exclusive agreement with the Bracco Group of Milan, Italy for the joint development and manufacture of a new line of MicroMarker contrast agents for use in preclinical molecular imaging on the VisualSonics Vevo 770 micro-ultrasound platform. The deal looks to strengthen VisualSonics' position in what the company says is a $2.9-billion market opportunity in preclinical micro-ultrasound, as well as an estimated $500-million annual market for micro-ultrasound contrast agents.
"With the addition of molecular imaging, we can not only quantify anatomical and functional, but now molecular information, in vivo, in real time non-invasively," says VisualSonics CEO Tom Little. "Understanding the molecular nature of disease initiation, progression and development is an important part of preclinical research. With new contrast agents, we will not only be able to discover, but also validate new biomarkers."
Under the terms of the agreement, Bracco will manufacture the line of contrast agents at its facility in Geneva, Switzerland, which will be sold under the VisualSonics name. Targeted research areas for the first kits developed under the agreement include cancer, cardio and vascular applications.
Using microbubbles, the kits will be either targeted or untargeted agents. Untargeted applications include researchers looking at flow through a tumor vasculature to create a small slice of the vascular tree within a tumor.
The targeted agents will allow researchers to attach the ligand of their choice, for whatever targets they may be examining, via a simple shake-and-wash procedure. The third kit under development will be optimized for the study of myocardial profusions in mice.
Little estimates the untargeted agents, currently in beta use at selected research locations, will be widely available by the end of the summer with release of the other two kits in late 2006 or early 2007.
For Bracco, working with VisualSonics on this project was a natural extension of its already extensive work in providing contrast agents in a wide variety of imaging applications such as CT, MRI and ultrasound—many in support of its existing line of clinical diagnostic equipment.
"With the addition of contrast-enhanced molecular imaging capabilities to its micro-ultrasound technology, VisualSonics [and] Bracco offer the only platform with high spatial and temporal resolution that simultaneously provides anatomical, functional and molecular data," says Dr. Michel Schneider, director of Bracco Research SA.
While Little acknowledges that there are plenty of other imaging technologies available to drug discovery research scientists, he is optimistic that VisualSonics, created specifically as a company dedicated to providing ultrasound technologies for use on small animals, can create a significant business in the preclinical lab.
"We already have more than 250 of our systems installed across the globe," he says. "And that is just scratching the surface of the 18,000 total available market for our products."