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ABI Readies New Mass Specs, MS-Based Tools, Company Officials Say at ASMS

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DENVER — With its mass-spectrometry business slowing down, an Applied Biosystems official this week said the company will launch new instruments this year and in 2009.
 
As its competitors continued to push new instrument platforms here at the annual conference of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, ABI’s new product releases were limited to reagents and software.
 
But speaking to reporters, David Hicks, senior director of ABI”s proteomics mass-spectrometry business group, said that the company remains “absolutely committed to the innovation side of this business,” and throughout the remainder of this year and into next year ABI will introduce new hardware and software products.
 
Joseph Anacleto, senior director for clinical research and applied markets, said that while ABI will continue to fill out its offerings of high-end of the mass specs, a market that has been a traditional strength for the company, “we’re looking at the entire portfolio.”
 
ABI declined to provide further details.
 
The comments come as ABI faces increasing challenges to its position as the mass-spec market leader. While the company is the top vendor by market share and its mass-spec business remains healthy, the last few quarters have been characterized by a slowdown in the segment that has put into question whether the firm has relinquished its leadership position as a bleeding-edge technology developer.
 
For the company’s fiscal third quarter, which ended March 31, mass-spec sales rose less than 1 percent, marking the sixth consecutive quarter that sales of the instruments had either flattened or contracted [See PM 05/01/08].
 
Company officials have blamed the trend on difficult year-ago comparisons when ABI’s mass-spec business went through a boom-boom period. But was is also notable is that while competitors such as Thermo Fisher Scientific were pushing out new platforms that upped the technological ante and that have been met enthusiastically by researchers, and newcomers such as Agilent Technologies have carved out a place in the market, ABI has been quiet on the mass spec front.
 
In an earnings conference call earlier this year, Tony White, CEO of Applera, ABI’s parent company, acknowledged that the company’s mass-spec business has been hurt by both the crowded competitive landscape and the company’s own passivity [See PM 01/31/08].
 
Mark Stevenson, president and COO of ABI, has said that the company will need to “reignite growth in this market,” and told analysts last month that new instruments are on the horizon [See PM 05/08/08].
 
This week, company officials said there is still “a lot of activity” in R&D around its mass-spec business.
 

“There’s a lumpiness, naturally, [to ABI’s mass-spec] technology innovation that we have to deal with.”

“It ranges not only in the hardware side, but [includes] software, and applications and workflow development,” Hicks said at the ASMS conference. “So those really have to come together to offer the kind of solutions that the customers today are demanding in the laboratory. It’s not just a new piece of gear anymore. It’s not just a spec battle, if you will. “
 
He acknowledged, however, that on hardware development the company has had some issues.
 
“There’s a lumpiness, naturally, in [mass-spec] technology innovation that we have to deal with,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is not easy; we’re pushing the limits of things like sensitivity, throughput, [and] robustness. On top of that, it’s not just good enough that these products have advanced specifications, but that they literally can be installed in the laboratory relatively easily, that customers can be trained on it, that they can have the methods and the user interfaces on it, and [that the tools can] also be serviceable on a global basis.”
 
As proteomics moves from qualitative research to quantitative analysis, ABI is changing its R&D focus to meet those needs, Hicks said.
 
“What is really accelerating are tools based on the triple quad, or in our case, triple-quad QTrap technology, where they have the capability [to] use the tool to measure the quantity of something they already know exists,” he said. “And they set that up as [a multiple-reaction monitoring] assay and they run large numbers of components in a particular sample, and they can run those sample relatively fast.”
 
This week, ABI launched software designed to enable such workflows: the MRMPilot software, which is meant to be used with ABI/MDS Analytical Technologies QTrap platforms. The software automatically builds MRM assays and uses the Midas workflow for the QTrap system to transition from discovery to validation. The assays complement many existing antibody-based assays but eliminate the need for purified proteins and are up to 10-fold quicker to develop, ABI said.
 
ABI also released Analyst 1.5 software, an upgrade that has a new Schedule MRM Algorithm that focuses instrument cycle scans “for specific analytes based on the timeframe that those analytes will be entering the instrument,” according to the company. For proteomics research, the instrument can scan up to 10 times more peptides with better analytical precision and yield more information about each peptide, according to the company.
 
The firm also launched mTRAQ labeling reagent kits for use in targeted proteomics research that use MRM analysis. The reagents are designed to improve reproducibility for quantitative experiments without the need for custom synthetic peptides, which can be expensive.
 
In addition to the proteomics-directed launches, ABI said this week it has signed a non-exclusive reseller agreement with BioTrove for its mass specs for drug discovery. BioTrove’s RapidFire Mass Spectrometry Sample Preparation System will be combined with instruments made by ABI and its joint-venture partner MDS Analytical Technologies.
 
ABI/MDS also announced an agreement to co-market and resell Premier Biosoft International’s SimGlycan, a high-throughput glycan mass finger-printing tool. The tool will be used with ABI/MDS’ 4800 Plus MALDI TOF/TOF Analyzer, the 4000 QTrap, and the QStar Elite system.
 
Last quarter, ABI officials said that a slowdown in pharmaceutical spending hurt the business company-wide, including sales of its mass specs. This week, Tamara Bond, senior director of ABI’s pharmaceutical business, said that the company’s pharma accounts remain flat.
 
Large pharma continues to deal with their own pressures, “they really have to rationalize their businesses,” and their buying patterns reflect that conservatism, she said.
 
Business with contract research organizations are growing, however, and compensating for the loss in large-pharma sales, she said.

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