Mass spectrometry (MS) continues to evolve as a powerful methodology and an analytical tool for detailed analysis of particles and molecules. The applications for this technology span all areas of life sciences, including basic discovery research projects, food and environmental testing, clinical applications, material sciences, and drug and bio-therapeutic development. Enabled by advances in materials science, microprocessors/data storage and software languages, the democratization of MS is fully underway and in fact entering a stage of relative maturity. Instrumentation is still expensive but only a fraction more costly than it was during the late 1980s. Room-sized systems have shrunk to the point where bench-sized detectors are used for front-end separations like gas chromatography and, importantly for biologists and biomedical researchers, gel electrophoresis, and HPLC.

Several technological advancements occupy the MS market today. Resonance enhanced desorption ionization (REDI) chip - a new silicon chip technology launched in June 2015 - facilitates the analysis of small molecules both in simple and complex samples. REDI chips are sample target plates that contain nano-post array surfaces to perform matrix-free laser desorption ionization of small molecules. Laser ablation electrospray ionization (LAESI) - an advanced ionization technique that allows the analysis of biological samples without the need for sample preparation - offers quick processing time and has the ability to analyze native samples and biological fluids, which reduces the need for sample preparation using liquid chromatography techniques. The LAESI technology is well adopted for a wide range of applications in many fields such as pharmaceutical and life science, surgical and molecular pathology, clinical analysis, forensics, and food processing. Tool providers would continue to push the limits of sensitivity and detection, but they are clearly focused on balancing the changes with ensuring a positive user experience with the instruments, reagents, and software. This will be an ongoing process that will continue to uncover exciting new research findings.

Competitive Dynamics

Strategic collaborations, mergers, and acquisitions have characterized the MS market since its inception and remain an integral part of the industry. Globally, the market is experiencing high competitive intensity with many big and small companies offering similar products. These companies adopt various strategies to increase their market share and to establish a strong foothold in the global market.

In June 2106, Thermo Fisher Scientific collaborated with National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT) to characterize complex biopharmaceuticals. As part of the collaboration, NIBRT will develop workflows using Thermo Fisher's biomolecule column range, liquid chromatography, and Orbitrap mass spectrometry systems. Under the terms of the collaboration, the company will add NIBRT's workflows and methods to the firm's AppsLab library.

In the same month, LEAP Technologies and Antec collaborated in the field of sample preparation for HDX/MS. The integration of ROXY EC system into LEAP's PAL HDX workstation will assure a fully automated HDX/EC/MS workflow which can be used with every mass spectrometer by integrating the disulfide bond reduction.

In February 2016, Waters acquired Midland Precision for USD 12 million. The company acquired Midland, a manufacturer of components for Waters' mass spectrometry instruments to lower future manufacturing costs and to reduce risks to its supply chain.

Sciex and Pressure BioSciences (PBI) inked a co-marketing deal in January 2016. Under the deal, PBI will promote its pressure-cycling technology (PCT) sample prep systems with Sciex's swath-based proteomics workflows as well as its TripleTOF, QTRAP, and triple quadrupole mass spectrometer systems. The method, which they have termed PCT-swath, allows for swath-based proteome analyses in 12 hours from the start of processing tissue, considerably shorter than conventional workflows, which can take days.

In the month of November 2015, Agilent Technologies acquired Seahorse Bioscience because its unique technology complements Agilent's leading separations and mass spectrometry solutions, in particular for metabolomics and disease research in pharma. The company's proprietary XF technology can be used to research the role of cell metabolism in neuro-degeneration, aging, cancer, cardiovascular disease, cell physiology, toxicology and hepatobiology, immunology, infectious diseases, mitochondrial diseases, model organisms, obesity, diabetes, metabolic disorders, screening, and translational medicine.

Such actions are expected to continue stimulating healthy market growth and expand the market potential in 2016 and beyond.

Challenging Perceptions

Clinical laboratories increasingly manage samples using total automation systems, or at least a high level of analyzer automation. This is necessary to enable clinical laboratories to process the increasingly large workloads that they receive. MS technology has not really been suitable for implementation into these types of systems as the technology is too complicated, too manual and, as a result, too time-consuming.

One of the reasons why some labs do not use MS is because the barrier for entry is quite high, not just to invest and install a system, but also when cost of labor and the expertise required is considered. Analysis time is also important; fast turnaround times are vital for clinical laboratories because clinicians often cannot wait for a send-away test to be analyzed and for a result to be returned. MS is not generally considered to be a rapid test method. Proper sample preparation is critical to the MS workflow, but this step can be time-consuming and can introduce an element of variability that can have a serious impact on result quality. Another issue faced by clinical laboratories is the sheer volume of samples that require testing. This makes it essential that analyzers are able to continually produce meaningful data and that any downtime is minimized. Instead, some modern automated HPLC solutions offer up to four channels, with staggered elution times to the MS, meaning that the analyzer is able to cope with much higher workloads in a shorter space of time.

Miniaturization - The Future of MS?

MS is only about 15-20 years old and the automation of MS systems has progressed remarkably during this time. MS instruments are much more robust now; they are smaller and can be coupled to highly automated front-end technology. Portability is a key factor in the drive to make the mass spectrometer smaller. Another advantage to downsizing the system is that a tiny, low-voltage gas ionizer would be able to work at much higher vacuum pressures. Lowering the cost of various parts is another advantage of miniaturization. Batching micro-fabricated components can drop the cost from thousands to hundreds of dollars, making it economically viable as a handheld tool in the arsenal of every investigator and technician.

Triple-quadrupole tandem mass spectrometers are the workhorses of quantitative analysis. Recently, the first mini triple-quadrupole mass analyzer has been successfully developed, although more work is required before it can be available commercially. One big difference between this and other prototypes is that earlier versions have all used ion traps. Moreover, the analyzer itself is about a quarter of the size of conventional mass specs. Not surprisingly, creating the analyzer is just the first step in a much larger process. The rest of the system must be created around the analyzer, including components for inflow, outflow, and vacuum capacity. For the next few years, full-sized mass spectrometers will still be the best option available for spectrum analysis.


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