Beckman Coulter last week officially launched CellLab Quanta, a benchtop flow cytometer for basic cellular assays, cell counting, and cell sizing, as the company continues its efforts to expand its CellLab product line beyond the realm of basic flow cytometry.
In August, Beckman signed a deal with NPE Systems, of Pembroke Pines, Fla., to license and further develop Quanta. NPE developed the instrument a few years earlier, but had somewhat limited distribution for it.
The Quanta’s basic design featured a mercury arc lamp with interchangeable filters that allowed excitation wavelengths of 405, 434, 546, and 578 nm, which could be used in certain combinations for two-color fluorescence analysis. The instrument also featured cell-counting and sizing based on the Coulter principle — one of the building-block principles of flow cytometry.
Since the August licensing deal, Beckman has modified the instrument somewhat, replacing a few of the in-between excitation lines with a 488-nm laser, as well as adding a 365-nm excitation line.
Brendan Yee, business manager in Beckman’s “affordable cytometry solutions” division, last week told Inside Bioassays that the additional laser line was crucial for researchers who wanted to use some of the more popular fluorescent dyes used in flow cytometric studies, such as FITC. The excitation maximum for GFP is also in the 488-nm range, making chimeric GFP-protein studies in live cells possible.
“You have a really nice wide spectrum of dyes that you can choose from and combine and mix and match, and depending on the filter sets, you can do some very basic two-color fluorescence, combined with counting the cells using our classical Coulter counting method,” Yee said. “So the market we’re going after — we’re calling it distributed testing — but it’s really [for] the customer that’s got something unique enough that if they try to send this to the FACS group, they’re going to be somewhat challenged.”
Yee also said that GFP variants YFP and CFP work well on the system, which would enable applications such as assays based on fluorescence resonance energy transfer to be performed in flow. “But I would say the main core of applications that we’re going to target are really simple ones — cell cycle, apoptosis,” Yee said.
The instrument hasn’t yet been modified to the extent that Beckman said it would be, however. In August, Ian Ley, Beckman’s cellular analysis strategic business manager, told Inside Bioassays that a slightly modified version would be available in about a month, while a next-generation instrument featuring additional automation and side-scattering capabilities would be available in early 2005 (see Inside Bioassays, 8/17/2004).
It turns out that the slightly modified version is just going to market now, with the next-generation instrument due to be out before this year is through, Yee told Inside Bioassays.
“That has not been integrated yet — it’s still in development, and we’re still working on those particular products,” Yee said about the newer features. “I can’t at this point give you a fair evaluation of timing, but we’re planning on coming out with one of those this year, just to keep the program moving along and to hit some new application targets.”
This is the second announcement Beckman has made in March regarding its CellLab suite of cellular analysis products. Earlier this month, Beckman said that it had begun shipping the CellLab IC100, the company’s first major entry into the high-content screening arena (see Inside Bioassays, 3/15/2005).
But while that product is intended to serve as a high-end imaging instrument for drug screening or functional genomics studies, the Quanta is on the other end of the spectrum: an easy to use benchtop cellular-analysis tool targeted toward basic researchers — who either do not have access to a core flow cytometry lab or don’t want to bother using one — to conduct basic assays such as viability, apoptosis, and cell-cycle.
If this sounds familiar, it should. The target customers are similar to those for Guava Technologies’ Personal Cell Analysis (PCA) and PCA-96 benchtop cell analyzers, and, to some extent, its higher-end EasyCyte product.
The PCA and PCA-96 are both green laser-based systems, like the Quanta, that offer forward-scatter measurements and two-color analysis, according to Kim Mulcahy, director of product marketing for Guava. The EasyCyte, in comparison, is a blue laser-based system that performs five parameters: three-color analysis, forward-scatter, and side-scatter. The PCA is for capillary-tube analysis only, while the PCA-96 allows researchers to work with the more traditional well-plate format.
“We really focus on the non-flow person, where they still, I think, would require flow expertise to run their systems,” Guava’s Mulcahy told Inside Bioassays last week. “They do offer this absolute cell-counting method, which in some ways would compete with us, but because they’re still a little harder to use, they probably wouldn’t be getting into the bioprocessing market segment that we do get into.
“What they do very well is ploidy analysis, and if we lose an order, it’s to that,” Mulcahy added. “But in terms of some of the other things, I really think we’re going after different market segments. Of course, there’s always overlap, where someone could go either direction.”
Mulcahy also said that she thinks Guava’s absolute cell-counting capabilities give it a competitive edge. Unlike traditional flow cytometers — and Beckman’s Quanta — which use sheath flow, the PCA uses capillary tubes to literally suck one cell at a time into the instrument for analysis. Guava maintains that sheath flow instruments can’t produce reliable absolute cell counting.
Beckman, meanwhile, looks at the sheath flow as an advantage, especially for throughput. And it says that the former NPE instrument, with its incorporation of the Coulter counting method, provides for much more accurate absolute cell counting than any other type of sheath flow instrument.
“The Guava instrument is a cute little product, but at the end of the day, I consider it a cytometer, but not a true flow cytometer, in that it’s a different kind of mechanism and optical design,” Yee said.
Whether the Quanta and PCA or EasyCyte will occupy the same market niche remains to be seen. Although the two companies downplay the direct competitiveness of the instruments in terms of capabilities, they both are clearly targeting the same type of customer. Both are also priced in the same ballpark — Mulcahy said that the PCA is in the $40,000 to $85,000 range, while Yee said that the NPE Quanta might fall in the area of $60,000, although he pointed out that full pricing is not complete due to ongoing development of the product.
As a privately owned company, Guava chooses not to disclose its sales figures for its instruments; it has a fairly good market presence, considering there just weren’t many instruments like it previously — the only real competition being the former NPE system. In a way, Guava had a size and sales force advantage over NPE for some time, but the tables have been turned slightly with the massive Beckman sales force taking over the Quanta line of products.
Beckman does hope to retain customers that are currently using the original NPE Quanta system, Yee said. Although he could not provide specific sales figures, he said that NPE had several dozen systems on the market.
“We felt pretty confident when we launched this product,” Yee said. “NPE has done quite well with this product even without us. We definitely would like to retain [their customers], and basically, we envision them as our customers now. We can essentially support them — we have the capability to do that.”
Yee also said that Beckman has sold several systems to undisclosed early-access customers.