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Western in a Capillary: New Tech Targets Cell Signaling

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It was 1979 when the pioneering paper introducing western blots hit the pages of PNAS — and since then, not a lot has changed in the tedious process of detecting and analyzing proteins, says Peter Vander Horn, vice president of development at Cell Biosciences.

His company, a relatively unknown entity based in Palo Alto, Calif., aims to change that. “We are going to do for this technology, the western, what ABI did for Sanger sequencing,” he says. In short: put it in a capillary.

Cell Biosciences has recently launched its sole instrument, which performs “a western on the inside wall of a capillary,” says Vander Horn, who joined the company in January 2005. “Basically we use a small capillary, dip it into a sample of interest, and perform a separation.” Special chemistries within the capillary grab the protein in whatever position it’s in, and then allow for directly imaging the protein in the tube.

Advantages over traditional western blotting “look a lot like the advantages one saw with capillary sequencing,” says Vander Horn, who has been working with reagents and instruments in the life sciences for the past 15 years. The technique allows for using rare samples because it requires just “a couple hundred nanoliters of sample.” It’s sensitive, quantitative, automated — currently with 96-well plates — and digital data allows for automated analysis too, Vander Horn adds. In addition, the instrument uses isoelectric focusing to indicate whether, as well as by what percent, the detected proteins are phosphorylated. “This is not possible by any other technique,” he says.

Now that the technology has been ironed out, Cell Biosciences is shedding its under-the-radar persona. The team has submitted a paper to Nature Biotechnology and has placed its first instrument, called Firefly, at the QB3 facility at the University of California, San Francisco. Vander Horn says the first target is the cell signaling market, and the commitment to that market is so focused that “we’ve turned [away] a few people” from other fields. “Within a year or so, look for that to change,” says Vander Horn. “In a year … it’ll be available to everyone and their mother.”