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Agilent Targets Small Labs, Big Pharma Drug Development in Push Towards Proteomics

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Agilent Technologies has a two-pronged plan for establishing itself as a household name in proteomics, Agilent officials told ProteoMonitor: positioning itself as the one-source provider for small biologists, while pushing downstream its offerings to big pharma. The company also plans to embed its products within HUPO projects.

Taia Ergueta, Agilent’s senior director of business development, initially discussed this plan at the UBS Global Life Sciences conference in late September (see PM 9-26-03), indicating that the company was “targeting biologists” and pitching to pharma at the drug-development stage, while being innovative with mass specs in order to avoid “me-too products.”

In a follow-up interview, John Michnowicz, Agilent’s proteomics program manager and LC-MS marketing manager, said the company was taking these steps because it saw these two sectors as particularly hot growth areas. In the pharma area, Michnowicz said that Agilent intends to collaborate with pharmaceutical companies in order to promote the use of the company’s separation technologies and mass specs — instruments that vendors traditionally market for drug discovery purposes — for downstream quality control and toxicology studies.

According to Michnowicz, pharma is already taking the bait. “I’m sure that several of our pharmaceutical customers are incorporating either our quadrupole or ion trap system into some of their downstream product development and manufacturing QA/QC systems,” he said. Michnowicz added that one pharma company was in the process of beta testing Agilent’s TOF mass spec for use in protein development QA/QC. Still, he acknowledged that integrating a TOF into a toxicology study is not trivial. “Before you market it you have to have the right software and other components in the system to make sure it meets the application need,” he said, noting that the company was still tweaking the instruments and developing the software necessary for the new applications.

Paul Knight, an analyst who covers Agilent for Thomas Weisel partners, said that the company’s choice of niches was a good one. “The growth in the future is going to be in development — and [Agilent] has had a good foothold there,” Knight said, explaining that the company’s strength in crossover technologies like liquid chromatography was particularly beneficial here. “And as pharmas are very active in screening programs right now, that’s going to hit development sooner or later.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Agilent is developing an across-the board set of basic proteomics toolsfor biologists, Michnowicz said. Having this set is key “particularly for people just starting in proteomics, [for whom] a soup-to-nuts cookbook procedure will make them very successful,” he said.

Targeting the small biologist in proteomics is a growing trend among instrument companies (see PM 9-26-03)-and for good reason, according to Michnowicz. “If you look at the number of grants and dollars which are being made available to people just getting into proteomics, it’s a substantially large, growing area,” he said. “Whereas some of the pharma and biotech companies are reducing or slowing down the amount of money that is going to proteomics activities, the government institutions are still funding non-profits and academics rather significantly.”

Agilent is developing a suite of proteomics tools for small labs that it hopes will provide everything aside from a few technologies such as 1D and 2D gels, with which Michnowicz said that Agilent would almost certainly “never get seriously involved.”

But the company, said Michnowicz, has certainly not gotten there yet. “Quite frankly, I think that, up until very recently, we just weren’t considered a very strong player in proteomics,” he said.

But according to Knight, Michnowicz is being a bit too modest. “Agilent has been in [the mass spec market] for years — they’ve been the fourth largest mass spec company in the world,” Knight said. “Now they’re just there with more focus.”

And they could add to this focus an expert endorsement. Gilbert Omenn, head of HUPO’s Human Plasma Proteome Project, has been beta testing Agilent’s High Affinity Removal Column for the removal of human plasma’s six most abundant proteins.

Omenn was expected to report on results from tests on this and competing technologies in a speech on the HPPP on Oct. 10 at the HUPO conference being held in Montreal this week (see story p. 1). Michnowicz expects to find out sometime soon after this presentation whether the HPPP will formally adopt Agilent’s product into its international protocols.

— KAM

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