Seeking to augment its core technology for time-of-flight mass spectrometry-and potentially head off future patent litigation-Waters said earlier this month that it had agreed to sublicense a portfolio of patents from Bruker Daltonics covering technology designed to increase accuracy and sensitivity in MALDI-TOF mass spectrometry systems.
Given the recent $47.5 million judgement against Waters for infringing a patent held by Applied Biosystems and MDS Sciex, the arrangement is significant because it establishes a framework for resolving future patent negotiations between the two parties, representatives from Waters and Bruker said. In addition, the deal may provide a few clues as to Waters'' intentions for improving its offerings-both in MALDI-TOF and potentially Q-TOF mass spectrometry.
The patent portfolio, which Bruker won the right to sublicense in June 2001, contains contributions from Bruker, ABI, and Indiana University, and covers technology known as Space-Velocity Correlation Focusing, or Delayed Extraction (DE). Essentially the technology allows the instrument to postpone injecting the ionized sample into the TOF mass analyzer until potential contaminants excited by the laser ionization are removed, according to John Wronka, vice president and general manager of life science systems for Bruker Daltonics.
"If you''re going to do peptide mass fingerprinting, [DE] really improves the performance of the machine," he said. "Before DE, you had to constantly optimize [with respect to] sample prep, and you were lucky to get [a resolution of 1000]. Now you get an order of magnitude better. It''s really necessary if you''re going to proteomics with the MALDI-TOF," he added.
Although Wronka said Bruker has "marketed" the patent portfolio to Waters and other mass spec vendors in the past, Gene Cassis, a spokesman for Waters, said his company was not pressured into licensing the technology under threat of litigation.
However, because the patent portfolio is relatively broad, Wronka said that the technology could concievably be applied to other TOF systems, including the Q-TOF. Following the court ruling against Waters in favor of ABI and Sciex in late March, Waters'' subsidiary Micromass pulled its high-end Q-TOF mass spectrometers from the market, and the company''s management admitted that reconfiguring some models to avoid infringement might cause a slight degradation in performance. Conceivably, applying the DE technology to Q-TOF instruments could improve their operation in general.
Mark McDowall, marketing manager for Micromass, admitted that the technology licensed from Bruker is not limited to a linear TOF configuration. "In principle it could be applied [to Q-TOF mass spectrometry systems]," he said.
But McDowall added Micromass is also interested in broadening the appeal of its MALDI-TOF systems, which currently rank behind Bruker and ABI for that segment of the market. In addition to the current licensing agreement, Micromass announced at the American Society for Mass Spectrometry meeting in June that it had licensed technology from the Scripps Research Institute for matrix-free ionization from a silicon substrate, a method that ameliorates ionization of low molecular weight species.
"That and this announcement are indicative that we are encouraged by our success so far with MALDI, and we''re on a mission to take it further," McDowall said.
Equally important, added McDowall, are the agreements in the license with Bruker that set guidelines for future negotiations over intellectual property. With the increasing number of patents awarded in the field of biological mass spectrometry, establishing ground rules for future discussions "helps to expedite the whole process so it never gets to the point where you need to get confrontational."