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Agilent Aims to Develop Superior Metabolomics System Through Japanese Collaboration

Agilent is collaborating with Japanese firm Human Metabolome Technologies on the development of a platform for metabolomics research, which it believes will prove superior to current offerings.

The firms are integrating HMT's biochemical assays with Agilent's capillary electrophoresis and mass spectrometry technologies for profiling, identifying and quantifying metabolic markers. The announcement, which was made over the weekend at the First International Conference of the Metabolomics Society in Tsuruoka City, Japan, marks Agilent's first efforts to develop a platform specifically for the emerging metabolomics field.

According to John Chakel, proteomics/metabolomics software product manager for Agilent's Integrated Biology Solutions business, the platform will combine HMT's reagents, capillaries, and established methodologies with Agilent's CE-TOF MS and ion trap MS systems. The partners hope to hit the market with the products within six months.

The companies will sell the products to researchers in the metabolomics market within Japan, Chakel told BioCommerce Week in an interview via e-mail.

Agilent will be competing with platforms already introduced by Applied Biosystems, Waters, and Thermo Electron. But Chakel does not believe Agilent will be at a disadvantage as a late-comer. "None of the other vendors provide CE TOF-based instrumentation," he said in the e-mail.

"The overall system has proven ease-of-use combined with superior accurate mass TOF MS measurement," he said. Chakel also noted that HMT has developed methodologies for analyzing more than 1,600 metabolites, which he believes will provide their jointly developed platform with a clear advantage over the others.

HMT was spun off from Keio University in September 2003 to commercialize a CE-MS approach developed by Masaru Tomita and colleagues. Tomita and other researchers at the university's Institute for Advanced Biosciences have been using a combination of mass spec-based methods to characterize metabolites.

According to Tomita, using CE/TOF-MS and LC/TOF-MS, the researchers can determine the molecular weights of metabolites, and with CE/MS/MS and LC/MS/MS, they can establish the chemical structure. The group has also developed a computational method to predict migration times of molecules in capillary electrophoresis and CE-MS using artificial neural networks (see BioCommerce Week 10/21/2004).

Tomita told BioCommerce Week that his group at the university was not collaborating with Agilent before the partnership with HMT was announced. But he did say that he and his colleagues previously had technical discussions with the firm.

Tomoyoshi Soga, a colleague of Tomita's at the Institute for Advanced Biosciences, said in an e-mail that the advantage of the hybrid CE-MS method is that "CE confers rapid analysis and efficient separation, while MS provides high selectivity and sensitivity for charged species."

Because most intracellular metabolites are charged species, Soga said, "The detectable number of metabolites in CE-MS is much higher than that in LC-MS made by ABI, Waters, and Thermo Electron."

Agilent declined to provide an estimated cost for its upcoming metabolomics system, but based on the price of other metabolomics platforms, it would likely be priced at a premium to Agilent's CE/MSD TOF system.

ABI is selling its API 5000 LC/MS/MS System, a triple-quadrupole mass spec platform it developed with MDS Sciex, for $450,000. That compares with $395,000 for its API 4000 mass spec instrument.

Earlier this year, ABI President Cathy Burzik told attendees of the JPMorgan Healthcare conference, "It's an additional product, not a replacement. We are targeting traditional pharma with its appetite for more and more sensitive mass spectrometry systems" (see BioCommerce Week 1/20/2005).

Chakel said current estimates for the metabolomics tools market are around $25 million. But five years out the market could reach $200 million he said.

Currently metabolomic research is carried out using a variety of platforms and technologies. There is no single platform on the market that can measure all metabolites, and approaches to this type of analysis include the use of nuclear magnetic resonance, chromatography, and mass spectrometry, each of which has significant limitations in quantification, scope, and/or throughput.

But Agilent believes that combining HMT's methodologies with its own CE TOF-based technology for screening, identification, and quantification, as well as its ion trap MS, will give the partnership a technological edge.

There are, however, skeptics who do not believe a single mass spec platform will be able to provide specific enough metabolomic analysis.

One such skeptic is John Ryals, CEO of Metabolon, a Research Triangle Park, NC-based early-stage firm focusing on metabolomic analysis techniques. At the time of ABI's launch of the API 5000, he told BioCommerce Week, "It's not going to be one type of mass spec that will do a full analysis" of metabolites, he said. "You will need various different types. I can't imagine any setup where you can take an extract and get everything you wanted. That's the dream machine — but it may be the impossible fix."

Ryals also sees CROs and reference labs as the most likely customers for metabolomics platforms right now — a view not shared by ABI or Agilent, which suggested that it would target metabolomics programs underway at bigger pharmaceutical firms.

Tomita told BioCommerce Week that "sooner or later [pharmaceutical firms will] realize the importance of metabolomics."

— Edward Winnick ([email protected])

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