Beckman Coulter has added a high-throughput well-plate sampling option to its Cell Lab Quanta SC, the benchtop flow cytometer it licensed from tiny cell-analysis instrumentation shop NPE Systems in 2004.
The well-plate sampler, called the Multi-Platform Loader, marks Beckman’s entry into the rapidly developing market for affordable flow cytometers designed for high-throughput screening and biomedical research in individual labs.
Beckman previewed the system at last month’s American Society for Cell Biology meeting in San Diego, although it didn’t officially launch the product until after the conference.
Karen Bezold, director of research cytometry for Beckman, told CBA News that Beckman developed the MPL add-on in collaboration with NPE Systems, the company that also produced the original technology on which the current Cell Lab Quanta SC is based.
Beckman originally signed an exclusive licensing and co-development agreement with NPE Systems in 2004 (see CBA News, 8/16/2004). The companies eventually re-jiggered the NPE Quanta into the Beckman-branded Cell Lab Quanta and a related product, Cell Lab Quanta SC, which incorporated side scatter capabilities.
Now, the companies have unveiled the MPL option for the Quanta SC in an attempt to provide individual researchers with a more flexible and higher-throughput benchtop flow cytometer at a time when demand for such instrumentation appears to be growing.
The MPL, which is an optional add-on to the Quanta SC, allows researchers to handle 96- or 384-well plates or a Beckman 24 ViCell sample cup holder. Beckman has also enhanced the Quanta software to better enable well-plate sampling. The combined product costs less than $90,000, Beckman said.
The company said that it expects the MPL will have applications in high-throughput cell viability, apoptosis, and cell differentiation assays, drug discovery; and basic biomedical research.
“There is this dichotomy right now between these core facilities that have the very large instrumentation and the capabilities, but maybe not always availability,” Bezold said. “It could be expensive for researchers, as well.”
Bezold recounted an experience she had while visiting several prominent academic research labs last year. She said that one lab in particular “easily had 40 different researchers that would bring prepared samples to their facility for testing, so obviously there was some juggling and waiting involved.
“If you’re in the middle of your research project, you might want to do some type of quick analysis, find out your results, tweak your study, and move on,” she said.
With the introduction of the MPL, Beckman joins rivals Becton Dickinson and Guava in attempting to provide a solution to the problem Bezold described. BD and Beckman have both offered well-plate loading systems for their higher-end flow cytometers for some time.
However, only recently have companies been attempting to drive down the cost of flow cytomters – traditionally found only in core labs – to make them affordable to individual scientists and research labs.
Naturally, these scientists also have begun demanding similar capabilities, including high-throughput well-plate loading, for their benchtop systems.
“Plate-loading capabilities overall are things that are used and desired in some areas of the research marketplace,” Bezold said. “The scientists want to be using smaller sample sizes. It really can enhance their capability to process more samples in a shorter period of time.”
Beckman’s product fills an as yet unoccupied niche in the marketplace. BD offers several flow cytometers, many of which are given the designation “benchtop,” but none of which costs less than $100,000.
“Plate-loading capabilities overall are things that are used and desired in some areas of the research market place. The scientists want to be using smaller sample sizes. It really can enhance their capability to process more samples in a shorter period of time.”
Guava, meanwhile, offers microfluidics-based benchtop analyzers with well-plate sampling for as little as $50,000, but some industry insiders have questioned whether its instruments qualify as true flow cytometers.
According to Bezold, the list price for the Quanta SC is $72,000. The MPL add-on costs an additional $15,000, bringing the cost of a fully functional well-plate sampling system to just under $90,000.
“We realized there is that need in the distributed testing marketplace, and this is something that is a good area to help fill customers’ needs,” Bezold said. “The core lab market will always be there, we believe. But for some of the very rapid, what-if kind of testing for researchers, it’s good to give them the capability, and it’s good that they have options.”
Beckman and its peers may face additional competition soon from upstart biotech Accuri, which at the ASCB meeting unveiled with much fanfare a fully functional benchtop flow cytometer that costs less than $30,000 (see CBA News, 12/15/2006). In addition, Accuri said it plans to come out with a high-throughput well-plate sampling version of its instrument sometime this year.
Beckman may be able to differentiate its product – even if it is priced significantly higher – from Accuri’s based solely on Beckman’s industry reputation and ability to provide international training and support.
“When we work with customers, there are a lot of things that they’re looking for, and I think that this is true with flow cytometry overall,” Bezold said. “As these systems are being introduced into these marketplaces, people had previously prepared samples, and perhaps ran those samples down to the core facility. Many of these people may be relatively new to flow cytometry.
“Obviously the specifications of the system are important; and the overall quality of the result is important, obviously, because they’re counting on that for their research,” she added. “But having the appropriate training and service is also critical. People are relatively new to this, so they really need to have that support and guidance, and coordination with the supplier to really make it work in their laboratory. Otherwise it could just end up sitting in a corner somewhere and they’ll be back at the core lab,” she said.
Bezold said that Beckman has already amassed orders for and begun shipping the MPL-enabled Quanta SC.