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At UBS, Vendors Peddle Full Platform Integration, Small Biologists, & Niches

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At the UBS Global Life Sciences Conference held in New York this week, major proteomics instrument vendors emphasized platform integration, mark-eting their products to non-techie biologists, and carving out new niches in the proteomics market as key strategies in the coming quarters. Nearly all also expressed optimism that big pharma is once again opening its pocketbook.

Agilent

Agilent Technologies was the boldest promoter of ramped up proteomics capabilities: Presenter Taia Ergueta, senior director of business development, announced at the start of her presentation that she would spend most of her allotted half hour discussing Agilent’s plans for proteomics. She said that Agilent’s two current points of focus were the development of its gene expression and proteomics platforms, and that the company is well-positioned to address the “expanded proteomics market.” Ergueta defined this market as having two branches: drug research and discovery, and drug development and manufact-uring. She said that Agilent would invest heavily in both branches, but would focus mostly on the latter.

Ergueta later explained to ProteoMonitor that “drug discovery,” according to Agilent’s definition, means using a mass spec to find and identify a protein, whereas “drug development” involves using the mass spec and other methods to further characterize the protein, look at the quality of what has been produced, and conduct toxicology studies in collaboration with big pharma. Such collaborations would be feasible, Ergueta said in her presentation, due to Agilent’s “long-standing relationship with pharma.”

Ergueta also emphasized Agilent’s intentions to “target biologists” (see Ciphergen story, p. 1), and said that Agilent would look at sample prep automation, the integration of separations and detection systems, increased sensitivity, and user-friendly software as four areas where biologists had a need and Agilent could provide the solution. She pushed the concept of selling a fully integrated platform from sample prep through to software analysis, which she called a “complete workflow solution.” In this aspect, Ergueta’s presentation echoed that of nearly every other proteomics instrument company that presented at UBS.

In the area of mass specs, Ergueta said that Agilent was able to grab a niche in the market by avoiding “me-too products” — in other words, it was Agilent’s position not to make any mass spec that was the same as those that other companies made, but instead to pick particular small segments of the market in which Agilent’s mass specs could lead.

Ergueta said that the company intended to further “deepen and broaden our mass spec capabilities” using this guidance in the coming year.

ABI

Applied Biosystems’ CEO Michael Hunkapiller divided ABI’s proteomics business into two parts: discovery proteomics — or traditional mass spec proteomics — and functional proteomics and cell biology. ABI recently entered the latter space with its newly released 8500 Affinity Chip Analyzer (see PM 9-19-03) and 8200 Cellular Detection System. The Chip Analyzer, which simultaneously measures the binding and kinetics of many protein interactions using surface plasmon resonance methods on a chip, will compete with Biacore’s SPR-based interaction products.

Biacore, which has a collaboration with Bruker Biosciences in which its SPR products are interfaced with Bruker’s mass specs, currently leads the market in SPR-based products. In regards to how ABI will nudge into this niche market space, Hunkapiller said, “Biacore is low throughput with high sensitivity, whereas ours allows you to look at the array with reasonable sensitivity but hundreds of times higher throughput.”

ABI Executive vice president Cathy Burzik later told ProteoMonitor that “protein interactions and functional proteins are definitely a growth area” and that ABI will be focusing on finding a place in the front end of that market. Added Hunkapiller, “the real emphasis coming up [in general] is more information” — more stages on a single sample, better data quality and content, and the tying together of data for an integrated system.

Thermo Electron

Marijn Dekkers, CEO of Thermo Electron, said in his presentation to conference go-ers that, in the area of proteomics, his company also hoped to provide the “broadest product line in the industry,” and that Thermo was nine months into a lab initiative in which it hoped to position itself as a “single source provider.” Said Dekkers, “We want no new lab being built or refurbished without Thermo in mind.”

Although Thermo has been traditionally only instrument-focused, Dekkers said in a break-out session that the company was moving toward providing mass spec applications systems with the implementation of its “total proteomics solution” package. “Any bachelor’s degree biologist can walk up to it and do proteomics,” he said.

In keeping with this push toward an integrated, user-friendly system, Dekkers later told ProteoMonitor that the “terrific reception” that the company’s recently released LTQ FT ion trap/FT-MS hybrid mass spec got after its release this year at Pittcon was due to its ease of use compared with other high end mass specs. “It’s a workhorse ion trap with magnetic capability — it’s not intimidating, not unpredictable and has very high resolution in a no-brainer [format], for half the price of a comparable Bruker instrument,” Dekkers said. He said the instrument would likely directly compete with TOF-TOFs in the market. Future versions of the LTQ FT will be developed in accordance with the feedback that the company gets in response to the current version, Dekkers said, noting that the company may tweak with the strength or type of magnet in the machine when developing the next generation of instruments.

Bruker Biosciences

Laura Francis, the chief financial officer of the newly merged Bruker Biosciences, made a presentation establishing the goals of the merger and laying out the contributions of each subsidiary. Echoing several other companies’ executives, she said that Bruker Daltonics and Bruker AXS would combine to provide “the broadest array of tools for proteomics applications.”

Francis repeatedly described the protein crystallography arm that AXS covered as “structural proteomics,” and said that this arm fit in with Daltonics’ expression, interaction, and clinical proteomics capabilities as a complementary element of one larger process. “When you have the structure of a protein, drug discovery can be more targeted,” she said.

In spite of the company’s integration vision, Francis said that Bruker Biosciences had no plans to take away the relative autonomy that its daughter companies still enjoy. “It is not our intention to disassemble the engine that is driving this train,” she said.

It seems, however, that Biosciences may seek more cars for the train — in one slide, Francis clearly delineated the company into three parts: Daltonics, AXS, and “future acquisitions.” She noted along with this that one of the major benefits to the merger was the “stronger acquisition currency” that came with being a larger cap company.

On the subject of biomarkers, Biosciences CEO Frank Laukien conceded Ciphergen’s current dominance in the market but pushed Bruker’s system as having three major advantages: cost, scalability, and automation. He also said that Bruker’s mass specs had better resolution than Ciphergen’s — and that this was important. “Once the initial thrill of seeing biomarkers is over, the real work [of validation and identification] begins,” he said.

Like his colleagues at other companies, Laukien also praised the trend toward making mass specs accessible to biologists and clinicians. “Delightfully, mass spec is branching out to those who aren’t experts,” he said.

Waters

John Ornell, chief financial officer of Waters, and Gene Cassis, vice president of investor relations, stressed the importance of the recently released Quattro Premier triple quad mass spec on Waters’ presence in the mass spec market. “The Quattro Premier has a very significant upward trajectory, and we’re working extremely hard to regain our share of the [triple quad] market,” Ornell said. Waters lost ground in the American triple quad market when the company was forced to pull its instrument after losing a patent infringement suit with ABI (see PM 7-25-03, 4-1-02, 4-29-02, 3-17-03).

Ornell also said that the Q-TOF that the company plans to release in the first half of 2004 (see PM 7-25-03) will be the beginning of a multi-year release plan for “commercial-izing different configurations of Q-TOFs.”

Like his competitors, Ornell stressed the importance of marketing a “tie-together package” that would provide a complete, “user-friendly” proteomics package to ordinary technicians.

— KAM

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