Cerno Bioscience, a startup based in Monmouth Junction, NJ, will be unveiling its first commercial software package at next week's Pittcon conference in Orlando, Fla.
The software, called MassWorks, promises to dramatically increase the mass accuracy of conventional mass spectrometers, providing lower-end instruments with a level of resolution comparable to that of higher-end platforms.
The post-acquisition software is based on a patented calibration technology developed by Cerno founder Yongdong Wang called MSIntegrity. Wang, who directed the Science and Technology group for PerkinElmer before founding Cerno, said that he began developing the technology three years ago to address a growing need for better data-analysis methods in mass spectrometry.
Current instruments are "spitting out data at a far greater rate than it can be handled," Wang told BioInform. "So what happens is that a lot of data reduction has been squeezed into the instrument hardware systems, and what the user gets is heavily processed and compressed data, which is heavily biased and contains a lot of errors because of the improper processing."
While high-end instruments like quadrupole time-of-flight and Fourier transform mass specs offer very high mass accuracy, these systems typically cost in the range of $400,000 to $1,000,000 — a price tag well outside the budget of smaller labs.
"We verified our hypothesis early on that if you handle the raw data properly, without losing a lot of information in the process, even conventional systems … at conventional resolution can achieve high mass accuracy accurately enough to identify compounds."
But Cerno claims that its calibration method can improve the resolution of lower-end instruments by 100-fold, to the 5 ppm range, to provide the same accuracy as their more expensive counterparts.
"We verified our hypothesis early on that if you handle the raw data properly, without losing a lot of information in the process, even conventional systems, such as a single quad, which costs maybe $100,000, or a triple quad, which costs somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000, at conventional resolution can achieve high mass accuracy accurately enough to identify compounds," Wang said.
Don Kuehl, business and technology advisor for Cerno, said that for many labs, the cost of high-resolution MS instruments is not the only hurdle. "The more expensive high-end instruments take a more sophisticated operator to run them, they're typically more difficult and more expensive to run, and a typical lab can't afford to have a lot of them," he said.
Kuehl said that MassWorks also improves the resolution of higher-end instruments, but only by about three-fold. The company's primary target market, therefore, is users of the "workhorse" triple quad and quadrupole mass specs in the biotech and pharmaceutical sector.
In practice, a user first runs a calibration standard on the instrument so that the MassWorks "calibration wizard" can designate the standard peaks and associate them with known molecules. The software then calculates a correction function for the mass spec that it applies to the rest of the sample data.
Mike Lee, president of Milestone Development Services, a consulting firm that specializes in LC/MS and other analytical systems for the pharmaceutical industry, said that the software should appeal to researchers who want better resolution, but are reluctant to shell out the cash for a new instrument.
"Generally speaking, for a lot of applications, people get attached to their machines, and given the conditions right now in the industry, I think people would want an upgrade like this, rather than getting a new set of wheels, so to speak," he said.
Lee said that Cerno faces competition from some other third-party vendors, like ACD/Labs and Bio-Rad, which provide post-acquisition software to improve mass accuracy, as well as from the major mass spec vendors themselves, who provide similar software with their instruments.
Wang acknowledged that Cerno is not alone in the market, but said that MassWorks offers better performance than competing packages. "I think one thing that separates us from the vendor systems as well as the other third-party systems is that this is not just another data system. This is a data system that incorporates a unique, patented technology that can dramatically improve the performance of mass spectrometry," he said.
Kuel said that the software is also more user-friendly than other options because it is directly integrated with vendor formats. "We've tried to make it as absolutely painless as possible for the user," he said. "With a lot of packages, you'll collect the data, and then you'll have to export the data to some third-party format, and then you have to read it in, so you're making multiple copies of the data, and it takes up a lot of space, and it's a slow process — that can sometimes be a huge barrier. Even though you get a huge advantage from using something else, it becomes a barrier, so we've tried to eliminate that."
Cerno has published several papers on its methods in a number of peer-reviewed journals over the last three years, most recently in the March 15 issue of Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry.
The company is also working with several undisclosed pharmaceutical partners to evaluate prototype versions of the software, Kuehl said.
While Cerno is introducing MassWorks at Pittcon, the software won't be ready to ship until mid-year — hopefully in time for the ASMS conference, Kuehl said.
Lee said that while the software appears to be very promising, "The proof will be in the pudding once they send it out for tests beyond beta tests. If it works, they're probably going to get a nice bump in terms of interest."
— Bernadette Toner ([email protected])