In addition to its massive booth at Pittcon 2006, Agilent also held a press briefing to announce the launch of several new products related to its mass spec and liquid chromatography lines. In particular, the firm highlighted its new 1200 Series LC and 6000 Series LC/MS platform, which includes two mass spectrometers that have yet to be shipped.
After Agilent's presentation, BioCommerce Week spoke with Fran DiNuzzo, vice president of integrated biology solutions in the firm's life sciences and chemical analysis business, about the current focus of Agilent's life sciences business and the firm's potential place in the molecular diagnostics field.
Agilent's focus in the life sciences space appears to be growing more focused on the LC/MS instruments rather than some of the firm's other areas, such as microarrays. Is this the case?
We talk about the microarray business as much as we do LC/MS, just not at Pittcon because there are not a whole lot of people into gene expression or genomic applications that come to this show. This show is really for the chemical industry and the back end of the pharmaceutical industry, the environmental industry, and those are the places for the liquid chromatography and LC/MS. The triple quad particularly is a great product for the environmental and chemical marketplace. This really an analytical show, not a life sciences show, so we spend most of our time here talking about the analytical side. But we spend just as much time talking about what we are doing in arrays at the appropriate places.
Tell us about what's going on in Agilent's life sciences business.
There are three key vectors of our life sciences business. LC/MS is absolutely one of those, and it's because what LC/MS will do for us in the area of proteomics protein identification and quantitation as well as metabolites, which are becoming a key aspect of how people are looking at understanding pathways. We're getting away from single proteins or protein complexes to look at pathways.
The second vector is around genomics, both the RNA and DNA side of things. There we have our gene expression products as well as those products applied to DNA, array CGH being one of the main application products we have out there, and our recent introduction of the ChIP-Chip technology based on some really interesting IP we acquired from Rick Young [at MIT's Whitehead Institute] and a company called CBC [Computational Biology Corp.].
There are several things that are happening in our array world. We can do custom designs of arrays. We actually turn those designs around in five to seven days. We have in customers' hands today higher density arrays. Customers are using 185K arrays in an early-access program, and that density will increase dramatically over the next six to 12 months. Those arrays will show up in various formats in catalog and in custom.
The third pillar is bioinformatics. The acquisition we did of Silicon Genetics, and if you follow through you will see the introduction we've done there. In addition to having their original gene expression application, there's a genotyping application. We put applications on there now for array CGH for location analysis. Later this year, we'll have our first mass spec application on there, so that starts to become an informatics portfolio that covers multiple sciences, and gives users the opportunity to do some cross-correlation of data coming from various aspects of cell biology and start to infer some deeper understanding of what might actually happen.
Is the software the key to providing an integrated biology package?
Certainly in the near future. The aspect of using informatics as a way to actually create integrated or systems biology, we believe that is the mechanism. We'd all like to have a black box that you can put some tissue samples in and out you get systems biology information about what's happening in various levels inside the cells. I don't think anybody is close to inventing that box yet. Until that happens, being able to interrogate the data and the information that's coming out of a variety of different measurements and being able to cross-correlate that data … we think that is where scientists are migrating to at this point and time. Informatics for us, and I think for many people, is the avenue into getting really started with this whole aspect of systems biology. And frankly, informatics outside of systems biology for Agilent in general is a key piece because the plethora of data that we're now able to generate per unit time is significantly beyond the ability of a human to be able to look at that data and really draw conclusions.
There has been a lot of discussion over the past year about pharmaceutical spending being down and about constrained budgets. How do you go about convincing customers that these new instruments you are offering can make them more productive?
I think really it is about productivity, and not just from a performance standpoint. This was the message you heard today: all of the performance all of the time. It's a combination of technical performance that actually gets you productivity married with what Agilent has built a reputation on for the past 35 years or more inside of the analytical world of reliability, ease of use, uptime, and unmatched service capabilities. That's our focus.
Chris van Ingen [head of the LSCA unit] mentioned during the presentation Agilent's move toward molecular diagnostics. What is the basis of that business for Agilent, and as a company that has not traditionally been in that space what is the competitive challenge?
The cholesterol test [that Agilent currently sells] is based on the Bioanalyzer, a microfluidics product that has been successful in RNA testing. That technology is well understood by us and it turns out we were able to identify an application in terms of lipids where it was easy to apply that technology. What we have is a robust measurement technology that provides value at a diagnostics level, and from what our customers tell us, in a simpler and easier-to-use format than what they have available to them today.
The challenge for us now is, how do you proliferate this technology into the marketplace? The approach we've been using and will continue to use in this marketplace is there are well-established companies in diagnostics who are looking for people who have molecular biology tools and technology that are going to advance what they're doing today with less sophisticated or older techniques. We're working with many of those companies out there. That's the starting approach, and we expect that these relationships will move forward in time.