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Seeking to Regain Market Leadership, Waters Launches New Q-TOF Instrument


Waters this week fired off the mass spec industry's first technological salvo of 2009 by launching a new quadrupole time-of-flight mass spectrometer that it says offers a three-fold improvement over competing instruments in terms of sensitivity.

The Xevo QTof is the second instrument offered by Waters under the Xevo line following the introduction of the Xevo TQ tandem quadrupole during the spring at the American Society for Mass Spectrometry annual conference. That instrument was designed specifically to quantify compounds in a sample while the Xevo QTof is typically for identifying the compounds, David Little, Waters' senior product manager for tandem quadrupole MS, said during a teleconference with reporters accompanying the launch of the platform.

The new instrument sells for about $300,000 to $400,000 depending on the setup, and company officials said, will allow proteomics researchers to detect and quantify low-abundance proteins that could not be deciphered before. Along with the improved sensitivity — Waters calls the instrument the "most sensitive Q-TOF system ever" — company officials said that the simplicity of operation distinguishes the platform from other Q-TOFs on the market.

"The Xevo QTof … challenges the notion that exact mass MS/MS has to be complex to deliver meaningful results," Brian Smith, vice president of mass spectrometry operations at Waters, said in a statement.

The Xevo QTof, which is currently shipping, replaces Waters' QTof micro instrument, introduced in 2003, as the firm's next-generation, benchtop, workhorse Q-TOF instrument. The new platform, according to Gordon Kearney, Waters' product manager for TOF-MS, is a "completely different beast" that was engineered to be as easy for the researcher to use as could be possible and to fit in with how researchers use such an instrument.

The system seeks to simplify the analytical workflow by automating steps along the workflow. The LC/MS system check, the first step in a typical workday for many researchers, for example, is now completely automated. Waters' IntelliStart technology performs mass calibration, system checks, and monitors system performance.

"The result is that high-performance exact mass UPLC-MS data is consistently available with minimum variation over time or with instrument operator," Kearney said.

The platform's ion source also incorporates new engineering: the connection for source gases and high voltages are integrated and require no manual intervention; the plug-and-play ionization probes are automatically recognized by the software; the gas flows, high voltages, and heaters are interlocked for safety; and changing between ionization options and performing routine ionization source maintenance are now tool-free operations.

In terms of performance, Kearney said that one leading competing Q-TOF system, which he did not name, regularly registered a 30:1 signal-to-noise ratio. The Xevo QTof, in comparison, consistently delivered a 100:1 ratio.

Alan Millar, senior product manager for TOF-MS, attributed the improved sensitivity to the instrument's new TOF design and its new source design, which has flow rates that are especially compatible with the company's Acquity UPLC system.

"That certainly enables some of that sensitivity improvement," he said.

For protein biomarker researchers, the new sensitivity translates to a greater ability to wade through the sea of high-abundance proteins that often cloud the data to arrive at those proteins in lower concentration that may be of greater interest, said James Langridge, proteomics business manager at Waters.

"The sensitivity really allows us to decipher biologically interesting proteins [that] often are present in low copy numbers that really [couldn't] be seen before," he said. Additionally, "what's interesting is not only being able to identify something, but also to get a good measure of the amount of that particular molecule. The real advantage of this system is not only [that we can] identify a particular component but [that] we can get a good measure of the actual amount of that component and compare that across a variety of different experiments in a discovery phase situation."

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The Xevo QTof, he said, provides a "rugged and robust workhorse" specifically designed to work in conjunction with a UPLC setup and with Waters' MSe approach to protein data acquisition. The MSe approach alternates between two MS functions: one capturing low energy spectra, the other acquiring spectra at higher collision energies.

"This is a really unique capability on a benchtop system [and combined with Waters' Identitye technology and expression bioinformatics] allows the maximum number of proteins and peptides to be securely identified and reproducibly quantified from the minimum number of sample," Langridge said. "So in the shortest possible time, someone can maximize the throughput, the confidence, and the coverage in protein discovery."

Because 80 percent of the analytical path between the Xevo QTof and the Xevo TQ is the same, if a researcher wants to transition from protein discovery to protein quantification by multiple-reaction monitoring, "it's a very seamless and easy experiment to perform on this new platform," Langridge added.

According to Kearney, the ability to get highly reliable and sensitive data as efficiently as possible is particularly important today. Waters' largest customer base, pharma, is facing a "looming patent cliff," he said, referring to the impending expiration of many blockbuster drug patents. In addition, research-and-development costs are rising, and many drug firms "are looking to restructure their organizations for greater productivity and efficiency," he said.

"So laboratories must strive for maximum efficiency and productivity whilst managing their costs to acceptable levels, using all their resources — the skilled scientific staff they employ and the high-value instrumentation they own — to best effect," Kearney said.

The Xevo line of mass specs allows for "the best quality of data together with simplicity of operation," he said.

Q-TOF Crowding

The launch of the new instrument also comes at a time when competition in the Q-TOF space is brewing. While Waters invented the technology, Agilent Technologies' entry and expansion into the Q-TOF market is raising the stakes for all vendors offering the instruments.

Agilent launched its first Q-TOF, the 6510, three years ago [See PM 02/02/06]. Since then, the instrument has been upgraded twice, most recently in June when the 6530 was introduced at ASMS. At its launch, Agilent hailed the platform for its "unmatched sensitivity." [See PM 06/05/08].

Meanwhile, Waters' last Q-TOF launch was last year when it introduced the Synapt MS as its next-generation research grade Q-TOF mass spec, replacing the QTof XE [See PM 01/24/08]. The ASMS conference, which is taking place in June, has traditionally been the launching pad for most major mass spec launches, but Smith said that the company did not want to wait until then to bring the Xevo QTof to market.

"We feel this technology needs to be in the hands of our customers as soon as possible," he said.

While the platform has drawn interest from pharma, biotech, and academic researchers, and Waters has already begun shipping the instrument, Smith declined to provide any order figures.