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Metabolomic Discoveries Licenses Max Planck Software to Improve Metabolite Profiling Services

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By Uduak Grace Thomas

Metabolomics services firm Metabolomic Discoveries has acquired an exclusive license to software developed at the Max Planck Institute that it expects will improve its ability to identify metabolomic signatures for use in pharmaceutical and ag-bio research.

"For a long time, identification of the vast number of metabolites in a sample was a major problem in metabolomics," said Nicolas Schauer, CEO of Metabolomic Discoveries, in a statement. With the new software, called TagFinder, "we are now able to offer our customers a highly accurate and robust analysis of hundreds of known and unknown metabolites."

The company, based in Potsdam, Germany, acquired an exclusive license to TagFinder from Max Planck Innovation, the technology transfer arm of the Max Planck Society.

Financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

The software, which was developed by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology, analyzes mass spectrometry and chromatography data and identifies which peaks generated at specific time points correspond to particular metabolites and then compares the results to a reference library of metabolites.

Using this approach, the software can identify hundreds of known and unknown metabolites in a sample.

The MPI developers claim that TagFinder improves on other metabolomics analysis software because it identifies hundreds of metabolites from a sample instead of just a few.

The process begins when the metabolites are accumulated and separated. Next they are bombarded with electrons in a mass spectrometer, creating a typical decay pattern for each metabolite.

These patterns, which are like a fingerprint for each substance, are then matched to the compounds in a mass spectra database created by Metabolomic Discoveries that contains about 2,500 compounds. The list includes standard metabolites that can be purchased commercially as well as compounds specially synthesized by Metabolomic Discoveries.

Most computational methods identify metabolites based only on when a compound elutes from the sample, the retention time, and the mass of the eluted substance, Schauer explained to BioInform.

As an example, he said, a substance with mass 217 that elutes at a specific time point might be identified as glucose. The difficulty with making identifications this way is that several sugars are similar in size and as such the peak could just as likely represent fructose.

Furthermore the data may also contain 50 or more overlapping peaks representing compounds of the same size that elute at the same time point, Schauer noted. As a result, "you could never be really sure which compound this is."

Using TagFinder, "we take all the information which is available in the chromatograms, take all the 50 to 100 fragments at one time point, and try to match those with our reference libraries [to make sure] that this is glucose and not fructose," Schauer said.

By comparing metabolites identified in samples to those stored in the database, Schauer estimates that his company can identify 40 percent to 50 percent of the compounds in a given sample.

The company previously used the pre-packaged software that came with its Agilent mass spec instruments, but these tools focus more on "quantitative analysis" and cannot analyze large sample sets, he said.

Furthermore, while gas chromatography mass spectrometry experiments can yield one or two gigabytes of data, liquid chromatography mass spectrometry experiments can yield hundreds of gigabytes worth of data, Schauer said. "It's not possible or feasible to do semi-automated analysis or [do the analysis] by hand, so we need a software tool to combine all the samples and extract all the information in a robust manner," he said.

According to Schauer, currently there aren’t many options available on the market that can do what TagFinder does because the metabolomics space is still relatively new. As such, he does not expect much competition from other vendors.

There isn’t a standard pricing system in place for using TagFinder's services, Schauer said. Rather, prices will vary based on the size, volume, and complexity of the project in question.

Currently the company is using the software "to improve the quality of food products" such as tomatoes and potatoes and "for improving bioprocessors which are used to investigate fermentation processes, cell culture processes, to produce fine chemicals, peptides or vaccines, and to help the industry to use less ingredients and still improve productivity," Schauer said.

While Schauer could not name specific companies that Metabolomic Discoveries is working with, he did say that its customers include German-based pharmaceutical companies and a Dutch seed company.

Researchers at Max Planck will continue to use TagFinder for educational and research purposes within the institute as well as participate in efforts to further developing the software with Metabolomic discoveries, Wolfgang Troger, patent and license manager at Max Planck Innovation, told BioInform.

He declined to provide additional details about Max Planck's agreement with the company.

Moving forward, Schauer said that the company plans to make some improvements to the software, such as making it more automated and improving its user interface.

Founded in 2009, Metabolomic Discoveries offers metabolite profiling and fingerprinting services using GC-MS and LC-MS/MS. The company also provides stable isotope labeling, pathway elucidation, quantitative single compound analysis, bioinformatics analysis, and contract research and development.

The firm currently employs six staff and is looking to hire an LC-MS specialist.


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