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Bruker, U Warwick Collaborate on Technology, Apps Development on Mass Specs

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This story originally ran on July 22.

By Tony Fong

Bruker and the UK's University of Warwick have entered into a collaboration to develop new applications for the company's next-generation Fourier transform mass spectrometer and ultra high-resolution time-of-flight instrument.

The partnership announced last week covers Bruker's two flagship high-performance mass specs, the solariX FTMS, introduced in May [See PM 05/21/09], and maXis UHR-TOF launched in June 2008 [See PM 06/05/08].

The collaboration, a continuation of relationship between the university and the vendor dating back to the mid-90s, will include the development of new applications for the two platforms, as well as technology improvements for the instruments.

Peter O'Connor, a professor of chemistry at the university, and Peter Sadler, head of the school's chemistry department, will direct the work. O'Connor, whose group focuses on instrumentation, with a particular focus on FTMS instruments, will oversee the technology development aspect of the collaboration.

Meanwhile, Sadler will be the point man on applications development. His research focuses on metals in biology and medicine, and the design and mechanism of metallodrugs, especially the role of proteins in metal-induced signal transduction.

Sadler was on vacation this week and referred all questions to O'Connor. In a statement, Sadler said that the new Bruker instruments and the collaboration "will allow our newly established [Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council] Warwick Centre for Analytical Science to compete strongly at the forefront" of his field.

The two researchers will be sharing one maXis, which has been installed at the university, and one solariX 12 Tesla FTMS, which is expected to be installed later in the year, Paul Speir, vice president of Bruker's FTMS business, said.

Speir declined to comment on areas of technology development to be covered by the collaboration, saying only that it will be mainly on the solariX, but O'Connor said the work will include increasing that instrument's sensitivity.

"If you think about the fundamental limitations of this FT-ICR mass spectrometry, the first one is that our sensitivity isn't really as good as it needs to be," O'Connor told ProteoMonitor this week. For example, while the maXis can detect single ions hitting the detector, the solariX cannot, he said, and "in fact, the lower detection limit of the FT-ICR is somewhere around 100 ions, so what we need to do is improve the sensitivity of the detectors by about two orders of magnitude," an effort that could pose multiple challenges, he said.

While "modernizing" the design of the instrument's amplifier may be enough to increase the sensitivity by an order of magnitude, increasing it to the next level would put the instrument "into really competitive ranges of dynamic range and," O'Connor said.

Other typical proteomics bottlenecks he plans on tackling include dynamic range and resolution. He also will be developing different methods of fragmentation. The solariX has the capability to perform both electron-transfer dissociation and electron-capture dissociation, and is the first FT-ICR mass spec to do so, Bruker's Speir said.

ECD and collision-activated dissociation are the two main fragmentation techniques for the FTMS platform, "but there are a number of things out there, different types of fragmentation methods, that we could possibly use and that might actually have special uses," O'Connor said.

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He added that his group is building FTMS instruments from the ground up — currently they are installing a 4.7 Tesla mass spec and are in the process of putting together a 12 Tesla instrument separate from the solariX — and "hopefully Bruker will be interested in [commercializing] … bits and pieces" such as FT-ICR cells and amplifiers that may come out of the work.

In a statement, Michael Schubert, executive vice president for R&D at Bruker, said that the firm has arranged a "technical fast track" for the inclusion of any developments by O'Connor's lab in the company's FTMS products.

Specific application developments are still being worked out, both O'Connor and Speir said, but one area of interest for the Warwick researcher is the post-translation mapping of proteins.

"We want to be able to look at all possible post-translational modifications on proteins," he said. Generally PTM work is restricted to a specific targeted PTM that a researcher is looking at a particular time. "But the point is that you usually have a lot of post-translational modifications in [a sample], and if you're not looking for them, obviously, you won't see them.

"And you need the performance to be able to look for things you're not expecting," he said, adding that the goal would then be to extend the work to "non-proteomic projects."

The collaboration is just the most recent between the university and the mass spec firm stretching back to 1995 when Bruker chose Warwick as the site for the first installation of its 9.4 Tesla FTMS outside of a Bruker facility. The instrument was regarded as the Bentley of FTMS instruments at the time, and a lab was eventually built around the instrument, producing a steady flow of research.

"They were kind of the center of FT-ICR mass spec in the UK for quite a few years," said O'Connor, who joined Warwick six months ago from Boston University.

Speir added "Warwick has an excellent track record in high resolution mass spectrometry and throughout the years a good collaboration with us" The partnership announced last week, he added, "is a new chapter. We're starting that [collaborative relationship] over again in a way"

He declined to provide financial details about the collaboration, but said that Bruker is "not directly" paying the university for technology development, though it received a discount on the maXis and solariX and could receive free-of-charge access "to pieces of hardware that we develop that we want them to work on," as well as beta-release software for testing.

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