Photo: Lauren Scrudato, Managing Editor

Although Pittcon—the world’s largest annual conference for laboratory science—may be over, it’s impact is not. Every year Pittcon sets the stage, establishing trends in the analytical laboratory industry that will be of importance for the next 365 days.

This year at Pittcon, I observed an increased focus on the bio industry, specifically biopharmaceuticals and biomarkers. Not too long ago, chemical labs were seen as the crux of the analytical laboratory community, creating somewhat of a divide between wet chemistry labs and biological/clinical labs. While wet chemistry labs still play an important role, there has been a definite biological shift in recent years as researchers and the public alike have come to value and understand human health at a whole new level.

This is now being reflected across the broader analytical science industry. Slowly but surely, as collaborations and multidisciplinary teams become the norm, preclinical and clinical labs have established themselves as an integral part of the “new” analytical lab.

Michelle Taylor



As of 2016, eight of the top 10-selling prescription drugs are biologics—or drugs composed of complex combinations of sugars, proteins, nucleic acids, cells, tissues, etc. That was not the case in 2015, when almost all of the top-selling drugs were made from small molecules.

In recent years, proteins and peptides have become the choice for biopharmaceuticals. Luckily, Pittcon illustrated the fact that instrumentation manufacturers are now designing their products to accommodate such research.

The analysis of proteins and peptides require extremely sensitive equipment, even more so than what traditional mass spectrometers can offer.

“Mass spectrometry, over the past few years, has reached higher and higher sensitivities. But in my opinion, there has been a plateau. The mass spectrometer has become almost as sensitive as it can get,” said Shimadzu Scientific’s LCMS Product Manager Christopher Gilles at their Pittcon press conference, as he explained the reasoning behind one of the company’s newest products.

Shimadzu’s Nexera Mikros is a microflow LCMS (liquid chromatography mass spectrometry) system that can operate at flow rates as small as 1 to 10 µL/min—a 10x increase over existing LCMS systems.

“The microflow technique is an opportunity if you want that extra 10, 15, 20x sensitivity. It allows the traditional mass spectrometer to achieve those sensitivity levels. I think we’re going to need it the most for biological analysis,” Gilles concluded.

Waters Corp. executives agreed that increasingly sensitive equipment has found a place on the analytical lab market’s wish list, with Jeff Mazzeo, Water’s VP of marketing saying, “[we] aspire to be the world’s leading specialty measurement company, by that we mean measurement that requires very high precision, very high quality, very high compliance and very high data integrity.”

Mazzeo cited global demographic trends—such as an increasing population, an increasing middle class and an increasing focus on healthcare—as reasons the specialty measurements market will be even more information in the future than it already is today.

“All of these areas need specialty measurement,” he said. “Understanding the pharmaceuticals [people] take, the food they eat and the products they consume at the molecular level ensures [the products] have the high quality and high performance to meet the needs we have as consumers.”

Given market demand and the success Waters saw with a previous version of the instrument, the company launched the ACQUITY Arc Bio system at Pittcon 2018.

Since its 2015 launch, the original ACQUITY Arc System has become a workhorse of pharmaceutical development and QC laboratories. Now, Waters has developed and introduced a version specifically designed for biopharmaceutical labs. The platform allows for the creation of robust and reliable methods that can easily be transferred from lab-to-lab—and from one LC instrument platform to another. The ACQUITY Arc Bio System is ideally suited to run reversed-phase, ion exchange, size exclusion and hydrophobic interaction LC methods with minimal carryover and high recovery of biomolecules.

“Biomedical research is a very important area to us [because] it’s a feeder market for the pharmaceutical industry, where basic disease research is done, which helps to inform new therapies,” Mazzeo explained. “It’s also a feeder market for the food area, because oftentimes things discovered in biomedical research lead to new functional foods. And of course it’s a feeder market into clinical, where biomarkers are discovered, validated, and put into market.”


Jeremy Nicholson, director of the MRC-NIHR National Phenome Centre Faculty of Medicine, was Pittcon 2018’s Keynote speaker. Originally trained as a spectroscopist, Nicholson uses multiple techniques in his ultimate goal of improving human health through analytical chemistry.

He describes his research as “analytical chemistry with a purpose.” Nicholson stressed the importance of biomarker discovery, and using analytical chemistry as a bridge to create new diagnostic approaches that improve patient care and outcomes.

Many biomedical experts, including Nicholson, believe the identification of biomarkers—small molecules found in the body that can be indicative of specific diseases—is key to the world of personalized medicine. Biomarkers have the potential to open doors at both a population health and an individual level.

According to Nicholson, the framework of a patient’s journey should resemble this: 1) the diagnostic phase, when a patient goes to the hospital and has clinical chemistry work performed; 2) the intervention phase, such as chemotherapy or surgery; and 3) the outcome.

“What this does is put NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) and mass spectrometry across the whole patient journey so that we have dynamic physiological information that is telling us if someone is getting better or getting worse. Ultimately, we want to be able to take pre-interventional data, model that and chose the best therapy available,” Nicholson said during Bruker Corp.’s press conference at Pittcon.

Bruker is the only company to have both NMR and mass spectroscopy products in their portfolio—something Nicholson believes is fundamental to biomarker detection and exploration.

“We run NMR spectroscopy on everything first,” he said. “Apart from it being very useful diagnostically, it’s a fantastic tool for picking out bad samples, which really screw up mass spectrometry. So if you have a bad NMR sample, we pull it out. Something like 2 to 3 percent of all samples are contaminated and can make mass spectrometry very inefficient. You put NMR on the front end, it’s powerful enough analytically on its own to go around that sample. In the next few years, I think NMR will give mass spectrometry a fun for its money.”