Innovation at High, Low Ends of Instrument Spectrum
In response to reduced reliance on core lab services, manufacturers of flow cytometers have been busily upgrading instrument capabilities for expert and casual users. We have seen this trend before, notably in high-priced instruments like nuclear magnetic resonance and mass spectrometers.
Toward this end, BD Biosciences (San Jose, CA) has launched a noncore four-laser cell analyzer that detects up to 18 colors, as well as a seven- laser cell sorter that paves the way for six-way sorting (for six distinct cell populations) in core labs. Similarly, BD has created an upgrade path for its Aria line of cell sorters, from three or four lasers to six or more.
“This means that users who are experienced users can experience higher throughput and get more information out of their experiments,” notes J. Clark Mason, Ph.D., senior director for research instrumentation at BD.
Core vs. individual lab models
Dr. Mason resists the temptation to call any flow cytometer with two or more lasers a “desktop” instrument. “In my opinion, desktop means something that takes up about a square foot and can easily be moved.”
For Dr. Mason, the cutoff or distinguishing characteristic of core lab vs. individual group instruments is not so much size as capability or instrument complexity. It all comes down to economics and usage. It generally makes more sense, particularly if an instrument will not be used around the clock, to install a half-million-dollar flow cytometer as a core instrument. “Flow cytometers with five- to seven-laser capability are almost always found in core labs, where the workflows justify the capital equipment cost. Research labs tend to operate more economically.”
Dr. Mason expects that over the next year BD will continue to “consolidate innovation,” with an even greater emphasis on the “extreme ends” of the flow cytometry user spectrum, i.e., what he calls “expert experts” and technician-level operators. The first group of thought leaders, who invent methods and experiment with cutting-edge instruments, thrives on complexity; the second group on usability. “The notion of a ten-laser system makes even my head spin,” he admits, “but it is our goal to make flow cytometry accessible to them through compact instrumentation and straightforward workflows. We have a number of such analyzers and sorters in beta testing as we speak.”
Serving both ends of the market
Similarly, Accuri Cytometers (Ann Arbor, MI) believes manufacturers must simultaneously serve the needs for complex, multicolor analysis and what VP of Marketing Grant Howes calls “bread and butter analysis with four colors or less, which constitutes the vast majority of current work.” Instruments and methods serving the latter market segment need to be easy to learn, use, and teach; be highly reliable; and have a low cost of ownership across the lifecycle.
“Miniaturization and standardization have become critical for reaching these less sophisticated users,” Mr. Howes says.
Instrument makers have done a good job of serving this group, which, according to Mr. Howes, has “broadened the user base of flow cytometry” while freeing core lab resources for more complex experiments, where their cost and operator expertise are more justified. Accuri’s C6 flow cytometer is an example: a system featuring two lasers (red and blue), fourcolor detection, computer control, and computer control/data analysis.
Labs that do not require the high level of sophistication of five-, six-, and seven-laser instruments benefit from running sorting or counting experiments themselves: Results are obtained in minutes vs. hours or days, and personnel acquire hands-on experience with flow methods. Facilities gain as well, since core instrument operators, who tend to be experts, are now free to pursue data analysis and other “brain” work.
When scouting an FC purchase, buyers should seek the “best fit for function,” according to Mr. Howes.
Users running simple assays involving cell viability or counting often do not require a high level of sophistication. “These purchasers should balance ease of setup, of running samples, and [of] acquiring/ analyzing data against cost of use and investment in learning to use the instrument.”
Users should be able to operate a two-laser system within a few hours of opening the box; more-complex instruments may require a three-tofour- day training course.
Data features are critical: For example, must the instrument be networked? Need it be compatible with third-party data storage or analysis applications?
Finally, Dr. Mason of BD encourages potential buyers to analyze their current and future cytometry needs in light of their technical expertise and to budget accordingly.
Angelo DePalma holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and has worked in the pharmaceutical industry. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.