Exploring the benefits and improvements needed in life science research equipment.
Life science researchers are benefiting from easy-to-use, ultra-fast, automated and integrated platforms that address specific application needs. These platforms combine hardware, software and reagents into integrated, push-button analysis systems capable of transforming workflows which once took several days into minutes. With a general trend toward higher productivity, this translates into a focus on certain product features such as time-to-result, capacity and throughput and ergonomics. This is so the time spent around the equipment is reduced to a minimum and researchers can dedicate their time to analyzing results, which is a high-value activity as opposed to generating them. This trend pushes life science equipment vendors’ R&D skills in all directions.
Automation relates directly to high throughput; as sample volume increases, automation is desirable. But many users are also seeking automation because of its consistent contribution to improved data accuracy and reproducibility.
Space remains a premium in life science laboratories, as the need for increased throughput also translates into laboratories packed with more equipment. Every inch of space counts, and compact footprints are among the key winning factors.
In the world of mass spectrometry, which is often used for protein identification, sensitivity continues to be important. With the low noise of high-performance systems, Agilent Technologies, Santa Clara, Calif., focuses on the adoption of a better and more meaningful standard than signal-to-noise. The company uses instrument detection limit (IDL), which is adopted from regulator standards published and accepted by agencies such as the U.S. EPA, IUPAC, Pharmacopeia and others.
Improvements needed, challenges
In a world that is asking increasingly complex questions about highly complex biological samples, simplified solutions will be game-changing to the life science industry. Two important features vendors continue to address are simplicity and usability, as life science research equipment should be accessible to and usable by life scientists. User-friendly systems and apps for routine methods will help enable life scientists to address their measurement needs without strong analytical chemistry expertise. These contributions are often software-centric, however simplifying/automating sample prep will also advance the field and grow utilization.
Laboratories are also always looking for improved cost and performance in their equipment. As instruments become more sensitive and deliver higher resolution, the resultant data becomes both larger and more complex. Advances in bioinformatics approaches to handle this data are crucial. Additionally, improvements in data compression and file size/structure must be addressed. Cloud storage and computing will become significantly more important in the coming years, even for regulated laboratories.
Ergonomics is also an area where vendors are putting a lot of R&D effort for continuous improvements. Research equipment delivers an increased number of functions compared to a few years ago, and users want to enjoy broad control over an increased quantity of information generated by the instruments. Users often don’t have the time required for going over comprehensive user manuals. Therefore, control panels need to be smarter and more intuitive so 90% of the functionality can be captured in the first five minutes of interaction with the instrument.
One of the biggest challenges in life science R&D today is educating researchers on new sample prep technologies. “If you look in life science laboratories, instrumentation like UHPLC and ultra-fast mass spectrometers have evolved by becoming more reliable, faster and more sensitive,” says Scott Kuzdzal, life science business manager, Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, Columbia, Md. “Yet, the sample prep of blood has not changed much since venipuncture was invented by the Egyptians in 1400 BC. It’s mindboggling that we can perform multiplexed, high-sensitivity mass spectrometry experiments in milliseconds, but must wait hours or even days for plasma samples to be collected, spun down, refrigerated and transported.” Novilytic Labs’ Noviplex Plasma Collection Cards can generate plasma in just minutes for a finger-stick or mouse tail-bleed, without the need for phlebotomists, syringes, tubes, centrifuges or refrigerators. Technologies like these can simplify sample prep and handling for researchers.
In order to launch innovative and reliable products, life science vendors need to create and maintain robust R&D teams that mix the experience of “seniors” with the talent and visionary approach of “juniors”, says Matthew Powell, CSO, Protea Biosciences, Morgantown, W.V. Although modern development techniques such as 3-D modeling and rapid prototyping have significantly cut the prototyping costs, R&D still requires significant investments in terms of development tools and travel to manufacturing sites that often aren’t in the same site as the R&D resources.
Another challenge, according to Darlene Solomon, SVP and CTO, Agilent, is that biology is less defined than chemistry—small molecules can be rigorously characterized, but large biomolecules entail natural variations and heterogeneity within their cellular environments. Life science researchers often work with very complex samples that are often limited in quantity. In order to achieve reproducible data with these complex samples, says Solomon, both the equipment and sample handling and prep methodologies are critical.
In addition, life science understanding is rapidly changing. “New knowledge enables new technology which enables new instrumentation and measurement capability,” says Solomon. “This means the questions that life science researchers want to ask and answer are continually changing. This fast rate of change is a challenge on the timescale of instrument development, but is also a great opportunity for new, high-impact product contributions.” Instrument platforms need to be designed so they can evolve over time and support broad application horizons.
Support for life science research
As life science researchers’ workloads become more challenging as they face more samples and try to extract more information out of every run, technologies like ultra-fast mass spectrometry are more prevalent. Technologies such as Shimadzu Scientific Instruments’ LCMS-8050 triple quadrupole mass spectrometers enable fast scanning speeds of 30,000 u/sec and ultra-fast polarity switching speeds. Whether researchers are detecting target compounds at trace-level concentrations or performing simultaneous quantitative and qualitative analyses, faster scanning speeds enable more analytes to be measured on a single run.
Protea Biosciences also focuses on direct sample analysis by mass spectrometer. For life science researchers, the company offers an opportunity for quick, prep-free analysis of biological samples for a variety of applications, including mass spec imaging, in vivo analysis of microbiological samples and biofluid analysis. Their laser ablation electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (LAESI-MS) technology provides information about the biomolecular signature or profile for these samples that can be used to better understand biochemical pathways, biodynamics and mechanisms of disease.
Life science research is now applied beyond traditional health care markets into other industrial markets through cellular reprogramming methodologies such as synthetic biology. DNA is used to program cells to become cellular factories to produce high-value chemicals and intermediates. “These synthetic biology approaches, such as metabolite profiling by LC-MS, leverage systems and integrated biology capabilities, transitioning the utilization of life science research equipment into energy, chemicals, food and other industrial markets,” says Solomon.
The future, according to vendors
All vendors surveyed say the future for life science research is bright and is a top priority on every continent, in both developed and developing economies. This reigns true as there’s a lot of biology to understand.
With this trend noted, life science equipment will continue to progress to better, faster, smaller and more sensitive forms. Advances in nanotechnology and microfluidics are on the forefront of this movement, according to Powell. Improvements in detectors, optics and sample handling are enabling these changes. And, increasingly, academic laboratories are pushing technological advances that are licensed by biotechnology companies for commercial development alone or in combination with other platforms. “This type of academia-biotech technology co-development will help drive innovations in life science equipment,” says Powell.
“The globalization of the markets isn’t over yet in our segment,” says Maurizio Merli, product director of centrifugation, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Waltham, Mass. “Besides the historical brands with several years of presence in the business, we see an increasing number of young companies with important intellectual property achievements that are scaling-up production and market penetration.” With travel becoming easier and information technologies to bridge the distances, there will be a wider range of products and brands available for selection, which will increase competition and provide users a higher chance of finding what they need at an affordable price.
The future also holds more sensitive and faster instrumentation, along with more integrated platforms that automate previously discordant and tedious processes. By leveraging technologies such as ultra-fast mass spectrometry, powerful new sample prep strategies and automated processing workstations, the future offers the opportunity for greater multiplexed systems, according to Kuzdzal. With the development of new, cloud-based data processing and sharing strategies, research will benefit from faster analysis and processing speed. “The very basis of scientific discovery, the global sharing of experimental results, will be infinitely simpler and faster and life science research will step forward into the cloud-age,” says Kuzdzal.
How efficient, cost-effective and easy to use is the current life science equipment on the market? R&D Magazine surveyed its readers to find out.
What life science equipment do respondents typically use? Topping the list were reagents (64%), freezers (60%), sample prep tools (59%), mixers/stirrers (53%) and temperature control devices (51%). Many respondents note use of their life science equipment for biological sample analysis, DNA profiling, proteomics and disease research and drug design and development.
Of our respondents, the majority (36%) use Thermo Fisher Scientific’s life science equipment, followed by Agilent Technologies (17%) and Beckman Coulter (10%). Other companies were also represented such as Bio-Rad Laboratories, EMD Millipore, Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, Eppendorf and Integra Bioscience.
What are the important trends respondents have seen in this equipment in the past three years? The top answer is accuracy (60%). Other trends that users found important are sensitivity (58%), automation (56%), speed (51%) and resolution (50%). Some respondents also noted simplicity (42%) and cost increases (42%). As the equipment gets more sensitive, users can detect minute amounts of DNA or samples and are able to achieve results with greater accuracy and reproducibility. As technology throughput is enhanced, this enables cost reduction and large-scale projects for life science laboratories. Advancements in automation allows work to get done faster and helps solve the shortage and high cost of professionals.
With the improvements noted, what do respondents want to see improve in the next three years? While cost has already decreased, 45% of respondents still want to see cost reduction in the technology. More simplicity continues to be on the wish list of 43% of the respondents, while more sensitivity is wanted by 40%. These statistics show the rapid changes in the life science industry and that the equipment must keep pace, along with the need to analyze smaller samples more effectively. This also reflects the trend of a more automated approach, where researchers need instruments that they can walk away from it and operate remotely to save precious research time. Having a simple operating system and procedures allows for all employees, even the non-experts, to correctly operate the machines.
How do the respondents see life science research equipment supporting future research? Some respondents see there will be more automation in the future, as more data will be generated. The analysis and interpretation of such data can be better supported by life science equipment for laboratories to produce more journal articles and citations. Others note life science equipment will help in the diagnosing of disease and improve treatments for these diseases, some of which include cancer and HIV.