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As Mass-Spec Business Loses Luster, ABI Bets on Biology and Biomarker Validation

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With proteomics now focused on biomarkers, and as more biologists begin to use mass spectrometers, Applied Biosystems will be targeting those two areas as part of its strategy to grow its mass-spec business, a company official disclosed his week.
 
Speaking to a group of investors at ABI’s Framingham, Mass., facility, David Hicks, senior director of the proteomics and small molecule business unit, said that the market addressed by his division totals about $2 billion, 25 percent of which comprises the market for mass specs directed at proteomics research.
 
Seen as the market leader in mass specs by revenue, the company’s position has started to slide somewhat. In the quarter ended June 30, for instance, mass-spec sales rose 8.5 percent year over year, ending a 12-month streak of double-digit revenue growth [See PM 07/26/07].
 
More precisely, revenue from mass-spec sales during the three months ended Sept. 30 grew 4 percent over the same period in 2006, almost one-fifth of the 19-percent surge ABI reported during the same period the year before [See PM 10/25/07].
 
For its part, ABI concedes that mass spec sales for proteomics applications are no longer seeing “the very high growth [rate] after the sequencing of the human genome,” and projects the business segment will grow in the mid- to high-single digits for the next two years.
 
But “We’re not done yet, and the customers have not yet received all the technology they require to completely analyze the proteome and fully understand it,” Hicks said.
 
In particular, ABI believes a “high growth segment” comprises researchers who study disease biomarkers, Hicks said. “Both the discovery of and then the validation and verification of [biomarkers] before they’ve become commercially applied” are areas that the company is “putting especially a strong amount of focus in.”
 
To date, most work in biomarker research has focused on discovery, but Hicks said that clinically validating the markers will be the sort of “heavy lifting” that will require technology of its own.
 
Indeed, at HUPO’s annual conference last month, several experts in the field said that researchers should focus more on validating existing biomarkers rather than hunting for new ones [See PM 10/18/07].
 

“Both the discovery of and then the validation and verification of [biomarkers] before they’ve become commercially applied” are areas that the company is “putting especially a strong amount of focus in.”

But for validation work, the technology “requires very high throughput of a large number of samples and to be very quantitative with low coefficients of variation,” Hicks said this week. To meet that challenge, two years ago ABI released the MIDAS workflow for its QTRAP LC-MS/MS platform, which was designed to allow researchers to quantitatively measure hundreds of putative biomarkers across a large number of samples.
 
Bio Mass
 
In addition to biomarker research, ABI has identified the field of biology as a growth opportunity, Hicks said.
 
“More and more biologists, cell biologist, folks that have been involved in molecular biology for a number of years have now seen that protein analysis is an important complement to the other techniques that they’ve been using in their laboratories,” he said. As a result, mass specs are becoming a “must-have” technology “especially if we’re going to look at things at a systems biology level.”
 
The challenge with these users, who may not be accustomed to using mass specs, is to create instruments that are easy to use as well as sensitive and robust, Hicks said.
 
Like its competitors, ABI views Asia broadly as a high-growth life sciences market, and demand there for mass specs is no different. To support its view, in March, ABI opened a 5,400-square-foot facility in Shanghai housing five demonstration laboratories that feature the company’s full portfolio of products [See PM 03/15/07].
 
In addition, the company has for several years maintained a demo lab in Delhi, India, with partner LabIndia. Proteomic instruments there include the 4000 QTrap and 3200 QTRAP and the QSTAR Elite.
 
The two other main applications for ABI’s mass-spec business are small molecules, which it says is a $650 million market growing between 6 percent and 10 percent annually, and the applied markets, which is worth $350 million but growing between 10 percent and 14 percent each year.
 
Regardless of the application, Hicks said, the instruments have one overarching task: “The challenge for mass spectrometry or any analytical technique is the ability to go ahead and measure all these different components simultaneously and across a large number of samples,” he said.

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