This article has been updated from a previous version to note that the Center for Integrated Genomics is located in Foster City, Calif.
Life Technologies this week launched the QuantStudio 3D, a dedicated, chip-based digital PCR platform that costs about $30,000 — a price that the company believes will help drive more widespread adoption of digital PCR for life science research.
In addition, Life Tech announced that it has established a Center for Integrated Genomics at its Foster City, Calif., location, which will administer a digital PCR applications grant program to fund up to 20 research projects exploring new uses for the platform and award five teams a new QuantStudio 3D system.
Life Tech unveiled the new system this week at the American Society for Human Genetics conference in San Francisco. Undisclosed early-access customers are currently testing the platform, which Life Tech said will begin shipping commercially in the first half of 2013.
With the launch of the QuantStudio 3D, Life Tech reasserts its belief that a chip-based architecture is the ideal format for digital PCR, as opposed to droplet-based systems from competitors such as Bio-Rad and RainDance Technologies, and more akin to the systems and chips offered by rival Fluidigm.
Paul Pickering, head of digital PCR for Life Tech, noted as much in an interview with PCR Insider following Cambridge Healthtech Institute's Digital PCR conference last month (PCR Insider, 10/18/2012), and this week reiterated those comments, noting that the new platform "is focused on the chip-based philosophy that we feel is the right direction for this technology."
The first generation of chips for the QuantStudio 3D will be able to generate up to 20,000 data points from a given sample in a single run — "coverage that satisfies the needs for most digital PCR applications today," Life Tech said in a statement.
Comparatively, Bio-Rad's QX100 Droplet Digital system generates 20,000 data points for each sample by using nanoliter-scale droplets; RainDance's RainDrop digital PCR system can generate between 1 million and 10 million picoliter-scale reaction volumes per sample; and Fluidigm last week launched the qdPCR 37K Integrated Fluidic Circuit chip for its BioMark platform that can create up to 770 reactions for as many as 48 samples for nearly 37,000 total data points, with real-time reaction monitoring (PCR Insider, 11/1/2012).
However, Life Tech's QuantStudio 3D may just be scratching the surface in terms of the number of reaction volumes or data points that it can generate.
In a statement, the company said that "the capacity of future chips will increase exponentially to meet increasing demands of the research community."
Further elaborating on that point, Chris Linthwaite, head of genetic analysis at Life Tech, told PCR Insider this week that the system features a "fundamentally different architecture strategy" that will "enable the scalability that we're suggesting. It will be a true breakthrough innovation."
Pickering added that the chips for the QuantStudio 3D use the same fundamental principle of the company's OpenArray "through-hole" technology, but added that Life Tech will disclose more information over the next several months demonstrating that "it's quite a radical level of innovation in terms of the reaction density."
The QuantStudio 3D also stands in contrast with Life Tech's first digital PCR-enabled platform, the QuantStudio 12K Flex, which the company launched a little over a year ago (PCR Insider, 10/13/2011).
That platform can accommodate four OpenArray plates to generate more than 12,000 digital PCR data points per run, but it is also able to run quantitative real-time PCR experiments using any of Life Tech's consumable formats, including 96- or 384-well plates, or TaqMan array cards.
The QuantStudio 12K Flex also offers real-time digital PCR capabilities, whereas the new QuantStudio 3D is an endpoint digital PCR platform.
"The innovation here is about the special-purpose instrument," Linthwaite said. "It's one minute to load, and one minute to read and interpret. That's a fantastic simplification of the workflow even from what the experience is on the QuantStudio 12K Flex instrument, which does so many things and is more suited for high-throughput types of experiments."
Francisco Cifuentes, director of product applications at Life Tech, noted that the end-user markets for the instruments will have quite a bit of overlap, and that both platforms are ideal for the two "basic buckets" for digital PCR.
"One is to detect that needle in a haystack … something that is very rare in a large background of very similar things, for example a somatic mutation in a cancer gene … or detecting GMO contamination in normal plants," Cifuentes said.
"The other big bucket is when you want to do absolute quantification of something, and that's the biggest difference from qPCR, is that for quantification you don't need a reference [gene]," he added. "There are many different applications in these buckets."
But perhaps the biggest differentiator of the QuantStudio 3D is its price of around $30,000, compared to between $90,000 and $190,000 for the QuantStudio 12K Flex, depending on the configuration; and about a third of the cost of a Bio-Rad QX100 Droplet Digital system.
"It's a tremendous bang for your buck, a huge value," Linthwaite said. "Not only is your capital entry cost a fraction of what a QS is, but your consumables will also be less expensive. Each experiment is going to be much less expensive."
Pickering added that Life Tech "really pushed" its R&D department to address the "two sweet spots … of what customers have been clamoring for. One of the challenges with digital PCR has always been workflow … and we really tried to make digital PCR as simple as possible. And the other thing … is the entry price to digital PCR. The market is asking for it to be cheaper, to reduce that hurdle."
An integral part to the QuantStudio 3D rollout will be Life Tech's digital PCR applications grant program.
"We want to get this completely polished to be a great machine for digital PCR," Cifuentes said. "So we are going to … take proposals for projects that involve digital PCR, and we are going to run the samples that customers want to run here, in house."
Cifuentes said that Life Tech recently created a Center for Integrated Genomics to facilitate this process and take "customers, the tech that we have developed and are developing, and the expertise we have here in house … and marry these components together to accelerate the innovation and usability of our technologies by our customers."
For the digital PCR program, Life Tech will accept proposals from potential QuantStudio 3D customers and select up to 20 customers "that want to collaborate with us," Cifuentes said.
"We will offer all the technical expertise and data analysis, everything that is needed from beginning to end of a digital PCR experiment, and we will give the data back to these customers … and at the end, we will select the five most successful projects," Cifuentes said. "We will probably get an independent [entity] to help us make this decision. And we'll give five of these QuantStudio 3Ds as an award."
Interested parties can learn more about submitting a research proposal here. Submission deadline is Nov. 30, 2012, according to the site.
Life Tech is also developing an in vitro diagnostic version of the QuantStudio platform, called QuantStudio Dx, and is partnering with Quidel for real-time PCR assay development on this system (PCR Insider, 7/26/2012).
Life Tech has not said whether it intends to pursue digital PCR as a diagnostic modality.
"It's unusual that we launched the QuantStudio 12K Flex, this premier all-in-one instrument, as our first entry into the space, and now we have a number of other instruments that are coming out," Linthwaite said. "The crux is that we'll continue to talk about the different QuantStudio models … and it will soon start to make a lot of sense when [people] see this family of QuantStudio instruments."