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At Pittcon, AB Sciex Previews Upcoming MS Debut; Agilent Discusses Varian's Contributions to Life Sci

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By Tony Fong

The annual Pittcon gathering wrapped up this week in Orlando, Fla. Below is a wrap-up of the top news in proteomics that played out at the conference.

One month after joining Danaher, AB Sciex continued trying to reestablish its leadership position in the mass-spectrometry space by saying it intends to debut a new "groundbreaking" platform later this year. The company has also penned a partnership with the University of Geneva to build out applications and workflows for the new platform.

Elsewhere at the conference, Agilent Technologies and Bruker launched new mass specs, while Thermo Fisher Scientific spotlighted two platforms introduced at ASMS last year that it said further pushes the technological limits of mass spectrometry.

Also, new ultra-high-performance liquid chromatography technologies grabbed some of the Pittcon spotlight as Waters continued to push its Acquity UPLC, which started the new LC technology evolution.

AB Sciex

Along with the partnership with the University of Geneva Mass Spectrometry Centre, AB Sciex announced at Pittcon its plans to launch a new "groundbreaking" mass spec platform that allows both qualitative and quantitative analysis at high resolution and high sensitivity with accurate mass.

It would be the first major platform from the company since late 2008 when it launched the Triple Quad 5500 and QTrap 5500, while the company was a joint venture owned and operated by Life Technologies and MDS [See PM 10/16/08].

AB Sciex said current accurate mass systems are limited to producing only qualitative results, which limits the sensitivity and speed required for quantitative analysis. As a result, such analysis needs to be done on separate instruments "which increases costs and delays results," the company said. "AB Sciex is uniquely combining qualitative and quantitative analysis with high resolution, speed, and high sensitivity to greatly improve the quality and timeliness of the data pharmaceutical companies use to make decisions about drug discovery and development."

Gerard Hopfgartner, a professor and scientist at the University of Geneva's Mass Spectrometry Centre, has been using the new platform to generate data. During AB Sciex's press conference, he said: "I think this platform will significantly change the way people are operating the [molecular pharmacokinetics] work and the biological work based on the high speed, high accurate mass, and high sensitivity," of the system.

"It's a major step forward," he said.

The partnership with his center is targeted at metabolite identification, specifically to develop new workflows and analytical strategies for the new platform. AB Sciex hopes the applications developed by Hopfgartner will "accelerate" adoption of the platform by drug manufacturers, the company said.

In addition, the platform has applications for proteomics research, general screening for chemicals, and food and environmental testing, AB Sciex said.

Laura Lauman, a president of the firm, said that the platform will be launched later this year but "at this time we're not indicating any timing for release of the product."

Agilent

A big piece of news last year was Agilent's decision to acquire Varian. More specifically, the deal, which is expected to close next month, has raised the question of how Varian will benefit Agilent's Chemical Analysis Group.

But at Pittcon, Nick Roelofs, president of the company's Life Sciences Group, said Varian's portfolio of instruments will also help his company to grow its footprint in life sciences.

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Varian is not a major player in the life sciences, but has instruments that are used in the space. In mass spectrometers, Varian offers two types of instruments, Fourier transform MS on the high end and entry-level triple quadrupoles on the low end that Agilent does not have in its product line.

The additions of Varian's 900-MS Series FTMS and 310-MS triple "really expands our full range of portfolio," Roelofs said during a webcast of Agilent's Pittcon press conference.

Some of Varian's mass specs will also be incorporated into Agilent's Chemical Analysis Group, headed by Mike McMullen.

From Roelof's perspective, the purchase of Varian is about "application questions, so we're very focused on solving a question called proteins and we're very focused on attacking a protein in every way we can," he said.

In addition to mass specs, Varian will provide Agilent's Life Sciences Group with NMR and X-ray crystallography systems, which have been traditionally used for chemical analyses but can also be used to study protein structures and kinetics.

Varian's liquid chromatography systems will also be moved into Agilent's Life Sciences Group, "which add to our portfolio, prep, and process LC," Roelofs added.

On the consumables side, Varian adds to Agilent's portfolio of polymer lab products and magnetic beads, which haven't been traditionally used for protein research, but do have applications in that area, Roelofs said.

In addition, there has been chatter about some redundancy between Varian and Agilent products. Indeed, though the European Commission granted conditional approval of the merger in January, it required the companies to divest parts of their businesses on the grounds that they could otherwise hinder competition.

This week, McMullen said that about 70 percent of Varian's business does not overlap with Agilent's. "That was really the driver behind the proposal to acquire them," he said.

In January, Varian informed Agilent it had extended the "end date" for their merger agreement by 90 days to April 26.

Also at Pittcon this week, Agilent launched its 6150B Series single quadrupole LC-MS, which it called "a new generation of this workhorse instrument. The instrument has a scan speed of up to 10,000 amu per second, which allows it to match the speed of fast chromatography, including Agilent's 1290 UHPLC platform, launched last year.

The 6150B is the first single-quad instrument from Agilent equipped with the company's Jet Stream technology, a sample inlet design that uses super-heated sheath gas "to focus the ion stream entering the mass spec. The benefit is enhanced sensitivity from a stronger signal with lower relative standard deviation at the limit of detection," the company said in a statement.

Its Jet Stream Technology has the ability to provide efficient ionization for a broader range of compounds than electrospray or atmospheric pressure chemical ionization alone, Agilent added, resulting in increased sample throughput.

Waters

For its part at Pittcon, Waters made a major push for its Acquity UPLC system as well as its Acquity UPLC H-Class, which it launched in January [See PM 01/29/10] this week.

Making its original debut in 2004, the Acquity platform generates a little more than half of Waters' total LC business, said Rohit Khanna, the company's vice president of worldwide marketing. Adding in the H-Class system, the company anticipates its UPLC instruments to make up about two-thirds of its total LC business in 2010, he added.

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While competitors have introduced their own ultra-high performance LC systems — most notably Agilent with its 1290 UHPLC instrument — Khanna said that there are subtle differences between Waters system and the others.

"You can take a system and throw more pressure into it and you'll get … ultra-high pressure liquid chromatography — UHPLC," he said. But the Acquity is "holistically" designed "with the chemistries, with the flow paths of all of the components necessary to get ultra performance. … That's UPLC."

Addressing a question that he and other Waters officials have been asked repeatedly, Khanna said that there are no plans currently to mothball its Alliance HPLC system.

The system remains "very successful," he said. "There's a base of customers that have standardized on Alliance and we have not seen any significant erosion on the Alliance business to date."

But the company also anticipates seeing a migration of its Alliance business, as well as competitors' HPLC business, to the H-Class, a platform meant to transition HPLC users to the full Acquity UPLC instrument.

"As that occurs, we will manage the flow of the Alliance business very carefully … and at some point, we'll look at when it's right" to begin shutting down that product line, he said.

Khanna also used Pittcon to provide an update on how the federal stimulus affected Waters' business. During its 2009 fourth-quarter earnings release in late January, the company said that it had begun seeing more stimulus fund spending reaching its level. This week, Khanna said that the spending was still "relatively limited." Generally, the quotes that are outstanding are tied to Waters' "leading technologies" such as the Synapt G2 and the Acquity.

Customers are not interested in adding traditional technologies to their lab, he said, but instead, "what they're looking for is funding to, hopefully, invest in the next-generation of technology."

Waters this week also launched its analytical size-exclusion chromatography solution for characterizing proteins and their aggregates. The solution combines the Acquity platform with Waters' UPLC BEH200 1.7-μm SEC columns, the first commercial sub-2-micron particle for size-exclusion applications. The end result is meant to allow drug makers to separate and quantify monoclonal antibodies and their aggregates in less than four minutes while still meeting US Food and Drug Administration requirements.

Waters also introduced the Protein-Pak Hi Res, Ion-Exchange columns for the Acquity, which is designed to analyze biomolecules such as recombinant proteins, monoclonal antibodies, DNA/RNA, and vaccine components.

"These columns give biopharmaceutical manufacturers the ability to reproducibly characterize, with greater resolution and speed, various charge states of intact biomolecules," Waters said in a statement.

The columns were developed to help in the UPLC characterization of recombinant proteins and monoclonal antibodies found in many novel biopharmaceutical therapeutics, it added.

Bruker

Bruker launched three new systems at Pittcon, including the amaZon SL ion trap mass spec, the third in the company's amaZon line of mass specs.

It also introduced the Fourier 300 FT-NMR and the Q2 Ion spark optical emission spectrometer.

The amaZon SL joins the amaZon X research grade mass spec for small-molecule analysis and the applied markets and the amaZon ETD system for proteomics research, both introduced last year.

According to Bruker CEO Frank Laukien, the amaZon SL is the "routine analytical family member" of the amaZon instrument line and was designed to be easy to use and affordable to those who may not typically use a mass spec in their normal workflow.

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Depending on the choice of an LC system, the amaZon SL sells for about $150,000. Bruker is shipping the instrument now.

The key features of the system include scan speeds of up to 32,000 u/sec at full isotopic resolution, for the "highest" duty cycle, making it "very compatible" with UHPLC systems, which Laukien said was a consideration in the design of the instrument.

With LC instrument vendors turning their attention to UHPLC technology and more such instruments making it to market, it made sense that the amaZon SL should be integrated with the newest LC technologies.

He said that as he walked through Pittcon, he observed that almost all the LC vendors have a UHPLC system and "it's clearly a trend that's being pushed further."

In addition to Waters' Acquity UPLC, which began the trend, and Agilent's 1290 UHPLC introduced last year, Shimadzu this week launched its Nexera UHPL system.

"It's not that everybody is only using UHPLC, but it's one of the trends in liquid chromatography and it's certainly one of the differentiators," of the amaZon SL, Laukien said during Bruker's press conference. "There are other ion traps out there and if you can keep up with UHPLCs, customers hopefully will find that beneficial. …This is really the first time that you have a routine analytical ion trap system that can keep up with" the demands of a UHPLC platform.

The amaZon SL also incorporates Bruker's SmartFrag algorithm to ensure "optimum reproducible fragmentation," making it "ideal" for MS/MS library searching, and incorporates open access environment, making it accessible to "non-expert, walk-up users" of mass specs, Laukien said.

Thermo Fisher Scientific

Thermo Fisher Scientific continued to trumpet its newest technologies this week at the conference, most prominently its LTQ Velos and LTQ Orbitrap Velos mass specs, introduced last spring at the American Society for Mass Spectrometry conference [See PM 06/04/09].

According to Ian Jardine, vice president of global R&D for Thermo Fisher, the firm's LTQ and LTQ Orbitrap technologies have "really revolutionized the field of biology with respect to the analysis of proteins, proteomics, and cell biology," by bringing new levels of mass accuracy, sensitivity, and speed to the machines.

The Velos line of instruments, Thermo Fisher's next-generation platforms, ups the ante further, Jardine said in a webcast of his company's presentation. In an experiment with C. elegans at 60 minutes HPLC gradient, the best Q-TOF instrument was able to identify and quantify about 300 proteins, he said.

The LTQ XL doubled that number, while the LTQ Velos further doubled the number of proteins identified by the LTQ XL.

"It should be noted that we not only identified four times more proteins [compared to the Q-TOF] but also the amount of information in the protein, the coverage of the protein, similarly increased dramatically, " Jardine said.

Meanwhile, after spending $246.1 million on R&D last year, essentially flat compared to 2008, CEO Marc Casper reiterated the company's plans to increase R&D spending during the year by more than $30 million as it sees "great opportunities for growth in this industry, and there are tremendous demands that our customers have for new technologies to help them be more successful."

In 2010, the company anticipates between $50 million and $150 million in stimulus funds-related revenue, he added, primarily from US stimulus funds.

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