The expo floor at Pittcon 2017 in Chicago. Photo: Lauren Scrudato, Managing Editor

Nearly 13,000 people have now returned home and settled in after a riveting week of the latest in laboratory technologies and innovations. Held in Chicago this year, the annual Pittcon Conference & Expo did not disappoint.

As I mentioned last month, the enormity of Pittcon, as well as the respect it has garnered as the industry’s largest event over the past 67 years, allows it to set the stage for the rest of the year. The trends discussed below will reverberate through the analytical lab community into 2018, and perhaps well beyond.

1. Cannabis

It’s almost impossible to relay just how big a deal cannabis was at this year’s Pittcon. It felt like it was all anyone talked about—exhibitors, attendees, manufacturers, lecturers: everyone. Last year—as opposed to this year—the Cannabis Labs Conference was co-located with Pittcon in Atlanta, so one may think 2016 was cannabis’ time to shine. But, I think Pittcon may have jumped the gun in terms of industry “readiness.” The Cannabis Labs Conference did not make an appearance at Pittcon 2017, but the topic sure did.

Shimadzu Scientific released its new Cannabis Analyzer for Potency ahead of its press conference the morning of March 7. This high performance liquid chromatograph (HPLC) is the first-ever instrument designed specifically to determine cannabinoid content. It is an “integrated HPLC,” meaning the autosampler, solvent delivery system, columns and detector are all built into a single box.

Since cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, there are no established regulations when it comes to labeling and dosage. Bob Clifford, Shimadzu’s GM of Marketing and head of the cannabis product line, referenced studies from The Oregonian and Johns Hopkins University that revealed only about 15% of cannabis products are accurately labeled with the correct potency information.

Michelle Taylor

“The legal cannabis market is $7.2 billion, [and] it’s expected to go up to $24 billion by 2025, of which $13 billion is going to be medical-related, $11 recreational, and [it will] employ 200,000 people. We have a need to develop quality analytical testing instruments so we know labeling is correct, and hopefully we’re dosing the patient or customer with what they are looking for,” said Clifford.

Years in the making, Shimadzu’s cannabis analyzer comes equipped with methods that have been confirmed for repeatability and accuracy, so labs don’t have to develop and validate their own method. The high-throughput method package is designed for the quantitative potency determination of the 10 cannabinoids of greatest interest in less than 8 minutes per sample.

While Shimadzu developed a brand new instrument for cannabis analysis, Fluid Management Systems (FMS) took a slightly different approach. It rebranded its decade-old, flagship product—adding fast, reproducible cannabis extractions as a core capability. FMS’ Pressurized Liquid Extraction is a sample extraction method that employs liquid solvents at elevated temperatures and pressures to prepare samples for analysis by either gas chromatography or liquid chromatography. Originally developed for the analysis of food and pesticides, it has found a second life with the emergence of cannabis analysis research.

Although not on display at the show, representatives from Control Company, the calibration and Traceable products manufacturer, said they expect to launch a cannabis-related product at the end of March/beginning of April.

2. The Cloud

As we continue to move further into the digital age, so too does our need for more products and innovations to substantiate this lifestyle. The cloud is one such product. A lot of consumers are already familiar with the cloud as a software or service—an application that you can interact with, using it to download photos or music. In the life science industry, it plays a more critical role, as companies store, retrieve and manage their data in the cloud.

“The life science industry is changing dramatically. Their needs are moving toward being able to support more quality data, and more data in general, coming from sites all over the world. The cloud, as everyone interacts with it on a daily basis, is changing all our lives,” remarked Tim D’Souza, General Manager, North District Business Operations, for Waters.

During its press conference at Pittcon, Waters introduced a new way to interact with the cloud. For 25 years, Waters’ Empower Chromatography Data System (CDS) has been the gold standard in the industry. And now, Waters has launched the Empower Cloud, a cloud-deployable, compliance-ready enterprise CDS that establishes infrastructure as a service.

As D’Souza explained it, infrastructure as a service takes an application as is, and instead of deploying it on-premises, which is typical, moves the entire operation into the cloud. In the case of a laboratory, the actual instruments would be moved into the cloud.

“This provides the easiest access for our customers to get into the cloud, as well as flexibility to manage their data in a way they are familiar with,” he said.

Increasing global collaboration was another driver in the development of Empower Cloud.

“Customer needs are changing,” D’Souza said. “More and more customers are derisking their supply chain by bring on contract development and manufacturing organizations. This in turn has created a need to be able to access data all over the world.” A cloud-based solution accomplishes just that, while keeping data secure and compliant.

During Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Pittcon press conference, the billion-dollar company announced it made yet another acquisition: Core Informatics, a cloud-based scientific data management platform. Core is known for its “integrated informatics”—or capabilities across laboratory information management systems (LIMS), electronic laboratory notebooks (ELN) and scientific data management solutions (SDMS).

Jakob Gudbrand, President of Thermo’s Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry Division, said the acquisition enhances and complements Thermo’s already established cloud, which supports the company’s genetic analysis, qPCR and proteomics systems.

A cloud-based LIMS system comprises an on-premises, private cloud—different from Waters’ completely cloud-based offering.

Gudbrand said one of two major bottlenecks for customers is too much data (the other bottleneck being sample prep). Thermo expects the addition of Core Informatics to help alleviate this bottleneck by “solving the [data] fragmentation problem” research labs often run into, where they have the data, but don’t know where it is, and thus can’t properly access it for their own benefit.

Meanwhile, those companies whose focus is not informatics, still found a way to incorporate the cloud into their new product offerings displayed at Pittcon. Cole-Parmer’s MasterFlex L/S Digital Miniflex Pump system for low-flow transfer and dispensing boasts a pump head that operates up to 150 PSI, and comes with a cloud-monitoring app for iOS (Apple) systems. Company representatives told me an Android version is forthcoming, and the general trend of equipping their products with cloud-monitoring is of extreme interest.

Likewise, during a booth visit, PerkinElmer executives said all their new solutions are being designed to move information and data from instrument to cloud, automatically.

A depiction of the Zika virus cryo-EM structure.

3.  Electron Microscopy

Having developed the first electron microscope in 1947, JEOL is not exactly new to the “new” electron microscopy (EM) trend that emerged at Pittcon 2017. For years, JEOL has been holding a Pittcon press conference to reveal its newest EM instrument or technique. In fact, this year the company announced its 7th-generation cryo-EM. What is new, however, is other companies focusing on electron microscopy—a market JEOL has cornered for decades.

But let’s start with JEOL. The company’s JEOL CryoARM 200 made its Pittcon debut last week. The transmission electron microscope is designed for unattended operation and high throughput imaging of cryo-EM specimens—12 specimens can be automatically loaded at one time. It also features a cold field emission gun (cFEG) for life science applications. With a smaller energy spread, the cFEG provides a significant boost in image contrast, powered by proprietary Flash-and-Go technology.

While cryo-EM is used extensively in pharmaceutical research, JEOL’s Director of Product Management, Tom Isabell, said applications in structural biology are increasing so quickly that it is now the “fastest-growing field” for cryo-EM.

Thermo Fisher Scientific definitely saw the writing on the wall on that one. In September 2016, the mega-company completed its acquisition of FEI Company, Inc., who specializes in electron microscopy, for a total purchase price of $4.2 billion.

Dan Shine, Thermo’s Senior Vice President, Analytical Instruments Group, confirmed during a Pittcon press conference that electron microscopy was a new focus for the company.

“Electron microscopy has applications in life science, material sciences and semiconductors,” Shine said. “[EM] imaging capability is a new era for structural biology…it’s tandem to Thermo Fisher Scientific’s spectroscopy offerings.”

Immediately following the FEI acquisition, Thermo Fisher created an entirely new department—the Materials & Structural Analysis Division. Mike Shafer, former President of the Chemical Analysis Division and current President of the new materials division, reaffirmed the belief that EM is moving beyond the life sciences into structural biology.

“Our customers are starting to use MS and cryo-EM together,” Shafer said. “How can you use MS to develop and verify data from EM?”

A 2015 study out of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) used cryo-EM to view, in near-atomic detail, the architecture of a metabolic enzyme bound to a drug that blocks its activity. At the time, then-NIH Director Francis Collins said, “This represents a new era in imaging of proteins in humans with immense implications for drug design.” Shafer pointed to this study and Collins’ quote in his explanation of the importance of EM going forward.

Stay tuned for even more Pittcon 2017 news as the month progresses!