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What MS Downturn? Bruker is Latest to Launch New Instrument with ultrafleXtreme MALDI-TOF/TOF

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This story originally ran on April 29 and has been updated.

Despite an environment that is shaking out to be one of the most challenging for the mass spectrometry business in recent memory, vendors are continuing to push out new instruments.

This week, Bruker became the latest vendor to bring a new instrument to market, launching its ultrafleXtreme MALDI-TOF/TOF, the "fastest and most flexible" MALDI-TOF/TOF instrument. In doing so, it joined Waters and Applied Biosystems, who have launched new platforms this year even as early indications suggest that the instruments could be facing a year-long slump.

Waters started the year by launching the Xevo Q-TOF in January [see PM 01/15/09]. Applied Biosystems, a division of Life Technologies, followed up with its introduction of the AB Sciex TOF/TOF 5800 earlier this month [see PM 04/09/09]. And at next month's conference of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, which has been a perennial launching pad for new systems, more mass spec launches, especially from the remaining top-5 vendors, Thermo Fisher Scientific and Agilent Technologies, could be in the works.

Through a spokesman, Bruker declined to comment about the launch. In a press release, the company said that the ultrafleXtreme incorporates the company's proprietary smartbeam-II laser technology at 1 kHz to enable "ultra-high" data acquisition speed in both MS and MS/MS at full system performance. The smartbeam laser with the 1kHz repetition rate was specifically developed in house for the new instrument, Bruker said in a technical note, and delivers constant high output energy-independent of the selected repetition frequency across long acquisition.

"This is indispensable for series of MALDI imaging or LC-MALDI runs," Bruker said.

The instrument, according to the company, is the only MALDI-TOF/TOF platform that combines "true" 1 kHz speed in both TOF and TOF/TOF modes with "ultra-high performance and extreme flexibility for a broad variety of complementary research, clinical, and applied proteomics applications."

A new FlashDetector combined with a new 4 GHz digitizer and new electronics give the instrument mass resolving power of up to 40,000 and 1 ppm mass accuracy. That resolving power, along with Bruker's PAN technology, allows for the highest mass resolution across a "very broad mass range, not just as a selected optimum," enabling precision proteomics, it said.

In its technical note, Bruker said that the ultrafleXtreme outperformed the company's ultraflex III, ABI's 4800 Plus MALDI-TOF/TOF, and Thermo Fisher's MALDI Orbitrap across the entire peptide mass range.

Bruker added that the ultrafleXtreme also had greater resolution than ABI's 5800 TOF/TOF based on data from the instrument brochure.

And the ultrafleXtreme enables laser focus diameters down to 10 micrometers "for high spatial resolution imaging without pixel overlap." This allows spectral quality and signal intensity to be maintained even at the smallest laser beam diameters, the company said.

In a statement, Ian Sanders, the vice president of Bruker Daltonics, the division that houses the company's mass-spec operation, said that with the ultrafleXtreme, researchers will be "enabled for new achievements in proteomics and MALDI imaging, while achieving result quality across the board that would have been undreamed of even a short time ago."

Jumping into an Abyss, or Jumpstarting Sales?

In any given year, the leading mass spec vendors will introduce new mass-spec platforms, but what is noteworthy about the instruments that have hit the market this year so far is their timing: Though all segments of the life-science market are being battered by the economic downturn, the mass-spec business is viewed as one of the more vulnerable.

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The picture from mass-spec vendors that have reported their earnings this past week is mixed. Last week, in the wake of "disappointing" companywide results, Thermo Fisher CEO Marijn Dekkers said that though mass specs performed relatively better than other instruments with industrial applications, they were "still under quite some pressure."

Waters, meanwhile, said that its instrument sales declined 16 percent in the quarter, compared to a year ago. Bruker, however, said that its mass-spectometry sales increased in the double digits, and Life Technologies reported better than expected results for its mass spec business as sales declined 5 from a year ago, prompting Greg Lucier, CEO of Life Tech, to say "it was a very good quarter" for its mass-spec operations.

The consensus view is that mass-spec sales will continue to be off in the second quarter for all vendors compared to a year ago, though the sector could see a turnaround later in the year.

In a report issued earlier this month, investment firm Thomas Weisel Partners said that despite Washington's economic stimulus package, which provides new funding for proteomics-directed research, just 10 percent of researchers said they expect to use the new funds to buy a mass spec. The overwhelming majority, 71 percent, said they anticipate hiring new personnel with the funds [see PM 04/09/09].

An analyst at investment company Leerink Swann, however, said that the mass-spec picture may be improving. Earlier this year, Leerink Swann forecast that mass-spec sales would be especially pinched in the near- to mid-term as a result of the economic downturn [see PM 12/18/08] and [PM 01/08/09]. But according to Isaac Ro, an analyst at the company, a recent survey suggests that researchers who had just a few months ago said they would not be buying big-ticket items are having a change of heart.

The mass-spec market remains under "a lot of pressure" Ro told ProteoMonitor this week, but where capital equipment purchases were at the bottom of researchers' priority list in Leerink Swann's December survey, in its March survey such acquisitions came in among the top-3 priorities.

"To me what that really speaks to is researchers are following where the dollars are," he said. "They're saying, 'In an ideal world, I'd like to keep doing my research every day but if there are specific stimulus earmarks for equipment, I'll ask for that money, as well.'"

Like others, he said that mass spec vendors will not feel the benefit from stimulus spending until the end of summer at the earliest.

In the meantime, the launches provide time for researchers to learn about the new instruments, review their specs, and make decisions about how they want to spend their money.

"Now is the time to be out there with a new product, not July [or] August," Ro said.

Along those lines, Agilent this week also launched a new liquid chromatographer, the 1290 Infinity UHPLC system [see related story].

While companies once pegged instrument introductions to conferences such as Pittcon and ASMS, Ro said that the importance of such events has diminished, especially in times when travel budgets are shrinking.

"Not as many customers go to these conferences, so what happens is you get companies that are making these announcements as these products become ready," he said. Also, while conferences have been places where customers could put their hands on the instruments and see how they operate in a laboratory set-up, companies now have regional demonstration centers that serve the same purpose, Ro added.

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