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ABI/MDS Launch MALDI MS, Continuing Efforts to Reenergize Their Mass Spec Joint Venture


Life Technologies' Applied Biosystems and its mass spectrometry joint-venture partner MDS today launched the AB Sciex TOF/TOF 5800 mass spectrometer, the second major launch by the firms in the past six months as they try to turn around a slumping mass-spec operation.

The introduction follows the simultaneous launches in October of the AB Sciex Triple Quad 5500 and AB Sciex QTrap 5500, which broke a years-long drought during which the lack of a major introduction in the space dragged down the mass-spec business for both companies and put them in a position of playing catch-up with competitors.

In launching the 5800, officials from both ABI and MDS called it the "fastest and most sensitive MALDI-based mass spectrometer ever built." New technological improvements to the instrument include a 1 kilohertz OptiBeam on-access laser, "which provides ultra-fast ionization accelerating the analysis of proteins," said Andy Boorn, president of MDS Analytical Technologies, during a conference call.

Speed is further enhanced by a new dynamic exit algorithm that "minimizes the number of laser shots needed" for protein identification, he added. According to ABI/MDS, the 5800 increases the speed of protein identification 10 times over other MALDI systems while increasing the number of proteins identified by 30 percent.

Other technological advances offered by the system include an easy access wizard providing a single-page interface that guides users in how to set up acquisition parameters and streamlines the process, and a programmable, self-cleaning MALDI source for easy maintenance and extended uptime, Boorn said.

Laura Lauman, president of Life Technologies' mass-spectrometry division, said that with the new capabilities of the 5800, scientists would be now able to achieve in one day what would take weeks on other systems.

"With this launch we've taken a giant leap forward in how biomarker studies can now be conducted," she said.

The instrument, which is shipping now, lists for $485,000 in the US.

Unlike the QTrap 5500, directed at biomarker validation and verification, the 5800 is meant for biomarker discovery, in particular, using shotgun proteomics methods, which David Hicks, senior director of pharmaceutical and proteomics mass spectrometry at Applied Biosystems, said remains a growth market for MALDI, despite a shift in the field toward more targeted workflows.

In addition, core facilities continue to use MALDI mass specs as workhorse instruments, especially for walk-up applications in protein research. And interest is growing in MALDI tissue imaging, a method pioneered by Richard Caprioli at Vanderbilt University.

The 5800 is not a replacement for the 4800 Plus MALDI TOF/TOF, Hicks said. The earlier instrument remains "what we believe to be the best-selling MALDI TOF/TOF system on the market and it continues to sell at a healthy clip." Rather, it complements the instrument portfolio, giving researchers a choice between the workhorse 4800 and the new platform with its expanded attributes, he said.

Mark Stolowitz, director of the proteomics core facility at the Canary Center for Cancer Early Detection at Stanford University's School of Medicine, has not yet used the instrument but has purchased one for the facility, which is set to open in the next few months, based on the data that was presented to him.

He told ProteoMonitor that he had been ready to purchase a Bruker ultraflex III instrument but was sold by the better sensitivity and resolution on the 5800.

While ABI said that the platform is suited for biomarker discovery rather than verification, Stolowitz said his facility will, in fact, be using it to verify discovery experiments.

"In our case, what we're going to be doing with the 5800 is targeted detection where we're essentially going to be using immunocapture to select a series of biomarkers, and then digest them all and then look at those peptides and confirm them by TOF/TOF," he said. "We can read those individual samples in a couple of seconds."

On the Rebound

The launch is the most recent move by ABI to either restore or maintain — depending on your perspective — its leadership position in the mass spec space. Because its competitors do not disclose their mass-spec sales figures, getting a firm handle on where ABI places in the space is partly a guessing game, but the consensus view is that the company is one of the top-2 mass spec vendors in the world.

During the past two years, however, both its business and its position in the eyes of researchers have taken a hit as its own technological drought and aggressive technology development and marketing by competitors have put ABI on the defensive.

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Until the introduction of the 5500 instruments last fall, ABI had not had a significant mass-spec launch since the 4800 rolled out three years earlier [See PM 10/16/08]. In the meantime, Thermo Fisher Scientific launched its Orbitrap instrument, Waters introduced the Synapt HDMS, and Agilent Technologies upgraded its status as a marginal player in the space to being a threat with a whole series of mass-spec launches.

The effect of the new landscape reflected on ABI's mass-spec sales. For six quarters starting with the quarter ended Dec. 31, 2006, until March 31, 2008, growth in sales of the instruments steadily declined.

In the fourth quarter of 2008, ended Dec. 31, 2008, the most recent quarter for which figures are available, ABI's parent firm Life Technologies reported that mass-spec sales slid 17 percent to $114.2 million from $137.6 million from the year-ago period.

For full-year 2008, mass-spec revenues declined 1.4 percent to $525 million from $532.2 million during full-year 2007 on a pro forma basis.

Moving forward, the company will no longer report mass-spec revenues as part of the company's total revenues, and will instead use equity method accounting [See PM 02/19/09].

Meanwhile, some uncertainty about Life Technologies' intentions with the business linger. When the merger between ABI and Invitrogen was first announced, Greg Lucier, CEO of Life Tech, said that though he would "run the business for success," he also acknowledged that under the new business model in which instrument sales would feed consumables sales, the mass-spec business, which does not have a heavy consumables component, did not fit. He, however, called it a "very good business."

MDS, which has seen its share price plummet from more than $20 a year ago to about $5 per share currently, has also stirred up some dust on its own. In September at an analyst conference, MDS' CEO Stephen DeFalco left open, if only slightly, the possibility that his firm could buy out ABI from the JV agreement [See PM 09/25/08].

That was followed by a letter a month and a half later from one of its largest shareholders, Obrem Capital Management, to the company and its board, voicing unhappiness over how the company was being run and pushing for the firm to sell off parts of the company, including MDS Analytical Technologies, which houses its mass-spec business [See PM 11/06/08].

In February, MDS announced it had created a special committee to explore ways to raise shareholder value.

Speculation has died down concerning the business, however, and with the current economic downturn, Peter McDonald, an analyst at investment and research firm Wall Street Access, told ProteoMonitor recently that Life Technologies is probably inclined to keep the business and grow it.

But despite the recent slump and behind-the-scenes drama, ABI's Lauman said today that the JV partners remain the leaders in the mass-spec space. "Now with the introduction of the 5800 I think that we continue to build out our portfolio and develop it across a wide range of applications and price points in the industry. But our portfolio is very strong and continues to get enhanced across the lines."

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