Given the rosy picture of the proteomics market painted by market researchers, it’s no surprise that many instrument makers in the life sciences have warmed to proteomics. Over the past year, instrument makers, and mass spectrometry manufacturers in particular, have invested intensely in R&D to come up with tools for protein analysis that hope to satisfy the demand for fast and sensitive technology — witness the advent of the MALDI-TOF/TOF and the more recent phenomenon of the myriad forms of hybrid mass spectrometers.
But what about instrument makers who shy away from such high-end, relatively expensive systems for separating and identifying proteins? Are they doomed to obscurity without the ability to tout flashy acronyms and huge boxes that dazzle technophiles in the exhibit halls of conferences, such as the recent meeting of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry?
Agilent Technologies offers an interesting example. Although the company has a strong history of building instruments for the chemical and electronic industries — it was spun out of the old Hewlett-Packard in 1999 — only in the last few years has Agilent turned its attention to the life sciences, and now proteomics. Its products span the various technologies currently in vogue for proteomics, including liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry, even microfluidics, but it currently lacks the potential superpower technology that researchers in drug discovery and other applications dream will help them pull out the previously uncharacterized proteins that will make them famous.
But this doesn’t necessarily bother Chris van Ingen, Agilent’s senior vice president and general manager for life sciences and chemical analysis. The way he sees things, there’s too much emphasis on the back-end detection systems, and in any case, most customers neither require nor can afford the super-duper mass spectrometers that other manufacturers tout as the next big thing. To van Ingen, providing proteomics researchers with integrated sample prep, liquid chromatography, and their choice of single quadrupole, ion trap, atmospheric pressure MALDI, or electrospray TOF mass spectrometry systems is enough to guarantee Agilent a significant share of the market.
“A combination of chromatography and separation [technology] puts less pressure on the back end,” he told ProteoMonitor during a break in the recent ASMS meeting in Orlando. “Between [offering] three to four mass spectrometry platforms, combined with strong separations, you don’t need a lot more,” he added.
Lab on a Chip
Although Agilent doesn’t plan to devote additional resources towards high-end detection systems, it is expanding its efforts on the front end, particularly through its collaboration with Caliper Technologies to develop new microfluidics technology. Over the past three years Caliper has contributed its expertise in building the microfluidics technology, while Agilent has designed the assays to run on the chips.
Current versions of the chips are designed for applications in counting and sorting by size the components of whole cell lysates, including DNA, RNA, and proteins. Van Ingen said Agilent, which is responsible for the marketing and distribution, has sold about 1,500 of the chip analysis systems for these applications. Agilent claims the chips can sort up to 10 protein samples in 30 minutes, and each assay can sort proteins ranging in size from 14 to 200 kDa. Sensitivity is equivalent to non-colloidal Coomassie staining, and the sizing has resolution comparable to a four to 20 percent gradient gel, the company says on its website.
In the future, Agilent and Caliper plan to develop lab-on-a-chip systems for additional proteomics applications, including protein digestion and separation using column packings analogous to those used in liquid chromatography, van Ingen said. But chips for proteomics aren’t exactly right around the corner: Van Ingen said bringing these lab-on-a-chip systems to market would require at least 18 months to several years. “Their ruggedness is proven, but they’re really brand new,” he said. “We understand the principles, and now we’re integrating more functions.”
Across the Value Chain
Agilent’s other strategy for beating out the high-end mass spectrometer manufacturers has more to do with their other offerings than with products for the proteomics market per se. According to van Ingen, the ability to sell pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies services in regulatory compliance, and products ranging from sample prep to mass spectrometry and informatics, should insulate Agilent from the shifts of fancy that accompany technologies of the moment such as genomics and proteomics.
“Pharmaceutical companies spend approximately $9 billion a year in measurement tools across the entire drug discovery chain,” van Ingen said. “Some spend less on genomics and proteomics because they spend more on compliance, and others vice versa. Where they spend could vary, but because we span all these [products and services],” Agilent’s revenue should remain strong, he said. “To be a provider across the whole value chain is important to us.”