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EPFL Spinout Spectroswiss Aims to Up FT Mass Spec Performance


NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Researchers from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne have launched a mass spec firm producing hardware and software to improve the performance of Fourier transform mass spectrometers.

Named Spectroswiss, the Lausanne, Switzerland-based company's technology can boost the performance and productivity of FTMS instruments by roughly two-fold and enable researchers to identify between an estimated 25 and 50 percent more peptides in a complex proteomic experiment, Yury Tsybin, the company's founder and CEO, told GenomeWeb.

Spectroswiss, which currently has four employees, began offering its technology earlier this year and aims to use next week's American Society for Mass Spectrometry annual meeting to introduce itself more broadly to the mass spec community, said Tsybin, who was formerly the head of the EPFL's biomolecular mass spectrometry laboratory mass spectrometry service facility.

The company's initial product, the FTMS Booster X1, is a piece of hardware that connects to FT-ICR instruments and FTMS instruments like Thermo Fisher Scientific's Orbitraps, and improves their data collection and processing.

In FTMS, sample molecules are converted to ions which move, inside the instrument, in a periodic motion, the frequency of which can be measured. "The goal of an [FTMS] is to precisely measure the frequencies and amplitudes of the ion signals," Tsybin said, which form the transient, or time domain signal.

"And after that you apply Fourier transform or other advanced signal processing methods to get the frequency of ions out of the time domain signal, and out of this frequency spectrum you get a mass spectrum and that is how you identify the masses of the molecules," he said.

In his research at EPFL, Tsybin and his colleagues became "particularly interested in the way you record these time domain data," he said. "How good are your electronics and methods of recording it and how do you process the data — how, basically, [do?] you generate your mass spectra."

With the aim of refining this process, they incorporated recent advances in electronics and signal processing that offered improvements over the components and methods used in existing FTMS instruments, putting them together in a piece of hardware that researchers can connect to their mass specs and use to acquire data in parallel with their machine's standard data acquisition process.

"That is the core of our business — [improving] the way you record the time domain data from these instruments and the way you process it in order to get the best performance in terms of sensitivity, resolution, dynamic range," Tsybin said.

"So people who run [for instance] an Orbitrap, will be able to generate better data [and] quantify more proteins per experiment," he added.

The exact level of improvement provided by the system will vary depending on the specific experiment and sample complexity, but Tsybin estimates that on average, it would enable researchers to look at around 25 to 50 percent more peptides in a complex sample or product ions in a complex tandem mass spectrum of an intact protein while giving roughly up to a two-fold improvement in metrics like sensitivity, signal to noise, limit of detection, limit of quantitation, and speed.

Tsybin said that the product was targeted primarily at advanced mass spec users looking to go as deep as possible into complex samples. "This upgrade is not needed for all applications," he noted. "It is needed for those people who really want to get the best out of the instrument where they need the full sensitivity, dynamic range, resolution, and speed to really analyze their samples in-depth."

He cited large-scale isobaric tagging experiments as a prime example of the sort of workflow where the Spectroswiss system could prove advantageous.

"One of the most advanced techniques in protein quantitation is a 10-plex [isobaric tagging] tandem mass spec [experiment], and here we can really speed up the data acquisition and this will let you look at more peptides," he said.

The company's technology is technically vendor independent, but, given its focus on FTMS, it will most commonly be coupled with an instrument made by Thermo Fisher, which has come to dominate the FTMS market with its Orbitrap technology.

Thermo Scientific has "provided support for the development of our technology," Tsybin said, but the company is "totally independent" and has either complete ownership of its intellectual property or exclusive licenses on earlier patents filed via EPFL. He added that the firm has filed for patents on various aspects of its hardware and software.

Bruker, who is among the most active vendors in the FT-ICR space, is the other vendor whose customers are likely targets for Spectroswiss, Tsybin said. FT-ICR instruments are commonly used for applications where very high resolution is required, such as top-down proteomics (though much of this work has migrated to Orbitraps in recent years) and petroleum analysis.

He noted, however, that other manufacturers like Sciex have collaborated with researchers on FTMS technologies, indicating that they might down the road launch FTMS instruments, as well.

"Some major companies are working on their own versions of FTMS technologies, so we think we will see more players join this market," he said, which would broaden the company's potential customer base.

Since launching in 2014, Spectroswiss has avoided taking outside funding, relying instead on several government awards, including a €150,000 ($167,000) grant for feasibility studies and a €700,000 grant for scientific research in super-resolution mass spectrometry from the European Research Council, as well as a CHF 10,000 (about $10,000) grant from Venture Kick, an organization that provides funding to spinout firms from Swiss universities. The company has also funded its operations through mass spec consulting with local facilities, Tsybin said.

Earlier this year, the company leased its first two instruments (which retail for around $80,000 each) and plans to continue its development using funds from those and future sales, Tsybin said. "We developed the products without external investors, and our current goal is to continue to develop as an organic-growth company using the income from [our] products and consulting and CRO services."