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UPDATE: Life Tech's Applied Biosystems Debuts Flow Cytometer

This story has been updated from a previous version to include comments from Life Technologies officials.

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Life Technologies' Applied Biosystems business today launched a flow cytometer that uses sound waves to control the movement of cells, marking the company's first entry into the flow cytometry instrumentation market.

The new instrument should allow Life Tech to directly compete with a handful of life science research tool companies that have a presence in the flow cytometry space, such as Becton Dickinson, Beckman Coulter, and Millipore.

The underlying technology platform may also eventually have application in the sample preparation space, especially in combination with bead-based separation; and in the environmental testing market, Life Tech officials told GWDN today.

Life Tech unveiled the platform this week at the American Society for Cell Biology Meeting in San Diego.

The instrument, called the Attune Acoustic Focusing Cytometer, is the first to use sound waves to precisely control the movement of cells, and enables enhanced sample throughput, sensitivity, and accuracy for a range of cell biology applications, Life Tech said.

The technology behind the instrument was developed by scientists at New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory, which in 2006 spun out a company called Acoustic Cytometry Systems to commercialize the platform.

Last November, Invitrogen acquired Acoustic Cytometry Systems for an undisclosed amount in a relatively unpublicized deal; and around the same time Invitrogen and Applied Biosystems completed their merger to form Life Tech.

In traditional flow cytometry, cells pass through a flow tube past a laser-based detection device that gathers data such as size, complexity, phenotype, and health from a cell population. Applications include studying cellular protein expression, or immunophenotyping; quantifying cellular DNA; and cell counting, among others, usually for the purposes of basic cell biology research, diagnostics, or drug discovery.

According to Life Tech, Attune's proprietary acousting focusing technology enhances detection sensitivity, increases throughput, and can be used with smaller sample sizes and amounts of consumables.

"In flow cytometry, acoustic focusing enables both longer transit times and higher throughput, which simultaneously permits better interrogation of every cell in a sample as well as the analysis of much larger numbers of cells," Mike Olszowy, head of flow cytometry at Life Technologies, said in a statement.

"The introduction of Attune brings Life Technologies one step closer to its vision of 'Digital Biology' whereby scientists can move beyond ensemble measurements of heterogeneous mixtures to a more precise quantitation of molecular phenotypes at the single-cell level," Olszowy added.

In an interview with GWDN, Olszowy elaborated on specific elements of the technology. According to Olszowy, most traditional cytometers use hydrodynamic focusing, in which rapidly moving fluids create sheath flow to direct cells through the laser-based interrogation point.

A common tradeoff in flow cytometery has been that "if you wanted to increase the rate of analysis, you could increase the number of cells that are introduced into the core, but you would lose focus," Olszowy said.

In acousting focusing, on the other hand, sound waves are generated on the side of a capillary, producing a standing wave that focuses particles through the middle of the capillary.

"Now you can tune the speed of the cells through the interrogation point," Olszowy said. "You've got an area where you can slow them down, so the time spent in front of the laser is increased," which will allow users to better distinguish individual cells or particles from each other and from background noise, he said.

The use of acoustic focusing also increases the amount of sample that can be run through the interrogation point – as much as a mL per minute, compared to about 160 µL per minute for some of the fastest current cytometers on the market, Olszowy said.

This will also allow users to more effectively analyze relatively dilute samples because the particles in the sample can effectively be concentrated at the interrogation point, Olszowy said. All told, he estimates that the instrument will be able to pull about 200,000 cells in approximately one minute – a feat that takes about 15 minutes on a conventional flow cytometer.

Lastly, the instrument's footprint is smaller than most traditional flow cytometers, which may allow it to perform tasks not previously possible on traditional cytometry systems, such as sample preparation and bead-based analyses; and which will reduce the cost of the instrument.

Murali Prahalad, general manager of Life Tech's cell analysis business unit, told GWDN that "at this point, we're still working out what our final prices will be for components from suppliers, and those negotiations are ongoing," but added that the company is "committed" to bringing the cost of the instrument to under $100,000.

Life Tech will likely not begin shipping new instruments until the beginning of its second quarter next spring, but is currently preparing to place beta versions of the instruments at various undisclosed research laboratories, many of which the company will be announcing in coming months.

Within the flow cytometry space, Life Tech said that Attune will be ideally suited for low-signal applications, such as intracellular signaling studies, rare event analysis. Other ideal applications could include cell cycle analysis because of the instrument's ability to separate different populations of cells.

Beyond flow cytometry applications, Prahalad told GWDN that the company intends to eventually apply the acoustic focusing technology to applications such as bead-based separation and sample prep, which dovetails especially well with Life Tech's Dynal magnetic bead business; and in environmental testing, where extremely dilute samples are commonplace.

Becton Dickinson and Beckman Coulter have dominated the flow cytometry market since the technology was invented in the early 1970s. In addition, a number of smaller startups entered the space in the 1990s and the earlier part of this decade, mostly to sell flow cytometers with smaller footprints or enhanced capabilities. These startups include Guava Technologies, which Millipore acquired earlier this year for $22.6 million; Accuri Cytometers, and Amnis.

But Prahalad told GWDN that Life Technologies did not develop Attune to be "one more low-cost player" in the flow cytometry market.

"What we're really trying to do is to be fundamentally disruptive in terms of value, particularly looking at performance and the capabilities the system brings," Prahalad said. "We've also done a lot of fundamental innovation on the software side to make it easier to use."

The pricing, however, is intended to target "emerging market customers," Prahalad said – "not just for people who are traditional flow cytometry [users], but for folks that have always seen the application as too expensive or complex to get into."