CHICAGO – Where was the proteomics?
This year, mass-spec vendors at Pittcon were unusually light on proteomics technology development or news. While the conference historically has been the venue of choice for companies to make a big splash in the proteomics pool, proteomics was all but absent from this year's show.
Instead the major vendors were more focused on talking up their applied markets businesses, highlighting instruments launched earlier, and weighing in on the newly cash-rich NIH.
Only one firm, Bruker, launched an instrument this week with any potential significance for proteomics, a mass spec-based technology for protein sequencing.
Bruker used Pittcon as a platform to launch a company record 15 tools and instruments, including a mass spectrometer-based platform specifically designed to replace Edman sequencers for protein sequencing.
Called the Edmass, Bruker's platform uses MALDI in-source decay to fragment proteins across a wide range in fractions of a second, according to the company, without prior protein digestion.
Edmass is available as a benchtop, called the Micro, and its high-end cousin for in-depth analysis, the Ultra, which can identify and validate N- and C-terminal sequence information directly in a mass spectrometer.
Edman sequencing is still seen by many in the field as the gold standard in protein sequencing, but last year, Applied Biosystems, now a division of Life Technologies, exited the Edman sequencing market, briefly leaving North America without a vendor for the instruments before Shimadzu stepped in earlier this year by making its instruments to the North America for the first time [See PM 01/29/09].
Still, Edman sequencing is rapidly losing relevance among many researchers, even though those who use it are doggedly loyal to it.
"We've tried to convince the community that your next Edman sequencer is a mass spectrometer with MALDI-TOF or -TOF/TOF," Bruker CEO Frank Laukien said this week.
According to Darwin Asa, marketing manager in the Americas for the Daltonics division, "We believe [Edmass] is the next-generation protein-sequencing instrument."
While mass spectrometry has become commonplace for protein sequencing, its shortcoming is that data from the instruments can be variable. The inability of mass-spec methods to distinguish between amino acids is another drawback.
The Edmass uses Bruker's proprietary MALDI-TOF technologies to try to address those issues. The Edmass Ultra is based on Bruker's ultraFlex III 200 Hz smartBean laser MALDI-TOF/TOF technology and offers high mass resolution, mass accuracy, amino acid-sequence coverage of the protein fragments up to several kDa to allow de novo protein sequencing.
The Edmass Micro is based on the company's microFlex LT MALDI-TOF technology and is suitable for walk-up use and operation by lab technicians, providing a "compact, efficient, and easy-to-use solution for top-down sequence validation in protein research and QC of recombinant proteins," Bruker said in a statement.
According to the company, among the advantages of the Edmass over other mass spec-based methods and Edman sequencers is longer sequence calls, up to about 80 amino acid residues; a total analysis time for protein QC of minutes; and a cost of $1 per sample, including reagents and consumables. The instrument works also for N-term modified proteins, Bruker said.
Asa also provided an update on its maXis Ultra-High Resolution tandem time-of-flight instrument, launched at last year's American Society for Mass Spectrometry conference and meant as a direct competitor to Thermo Fisher Scientific's Orbitrap instruments.
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Where once the Synapt was Waters' pride and joy among its mass specs, that position now goes to the Xevo line of instruments.
The first Xevo mass spec, the Xevo TQ tandem quadrupole instrument, directed at food-safety, environmental, chemical, and pharmaceutical research, was introduced at the annual conference of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry last June. In January, Waters followed that up with the introduction of the Xevo QTof, billing it as the "most sensitive Q-TOF system ever." [See PM 01/15/09]
With the launch of the Xevo instruments, "mass spectrometry is officially going mainstream," Mary Ellen Goffredo, senior director of systems marketing for Water, said during the firm's press conference at Pittcon.
In particular, she said, the new instruments incorporate a new engineering philosophy dubbed "engineered simplicity," which aims to merge high performance in the instruments with easy usability. Mass spectrometry, Goffredo said, has been limited by its complexity, which has made reproducing experiments difficult, sometimes impossible.
"Imagine the effect on productivity," as a result, she said. With the Xevo line, researchers have been able to use it on the first try without any prior training on the platforms.
During the company's presentation, Rohit Khanna, Waters' vice president of worldwide marketing, said that though the food-safety and environmental markets are the fastest growing segments, the company will continue to concentrate on building its pharmaceutical business, which comprises more than half of its total sales. Despite the pressures facing that industry, opportunities still remain fertile, Khanna said.
Drug makers remain interested in new technologies, he added, especially those that will help them "refine their processes."
Like its competitors, Waters will track government spending. "That's where you'll see a lot of investments shifting," Khanna said.
Thermo Fisher Scientific
Thermo Fisher Scientific launched no new platforms for proteomics and, indeed, had no news on the proteomics front as new mass specs were directed at food safety and routine analytical applications.
As for the company's business, Marc Caspar, executive vice president and COO, said that the company continues to see the first half of 2009 to be more challenging with the second half possibly improving.
Its industrial business is comparatively weaker than its life sciences and health care business, he added. Geographically, Asia remains Thermo Fisher's fastest grower.
The firm announced the release of the iMethod tests for mass spec-based testing of food and water quality and a project with Jupiter Environmental Laboratories to restore the Florida Everglades, but had nothing to say about its proteomics business.