By Mark D. Uehling
June 15, 2003 | Charles River Laboratories (2002 sales: $554 million) has unveiled a new, state-of-the-art contract lab for industrial-scale proteomics. Just as the company breeds designer lab animals, it will offer drug companies the ability to custom-order everything from protein sample preparation to identification to statistical analysis.
Who says the contract research industry isn't glamorous? One unidentified customer has already supplied urine from 10 dogs and asked Charles River to identify the proteins within. John Pirro, general manager of Charles River Proteomic Services, notes that the company believes its fee-for-service research could appeal to large and small life science companies that don't have the cash or don’t want to interrupt ongoing research with a question that might briefly cause a larger proteomic project to be suspended.
Some of the work could be quite complex. With help from Charles River’s more established business lines (not only lab mice but also histopathological services to analyze tissues under the microscope), customers could custom-order experimental animals with certain characteristics, give those animals a drug or a disease -- and analyze any protein-related changes that arise. "We can take out the tumors, and take the proteins from that, and analyze the proteins from that tissue," Pirro says. The company can now run an impressive 180 gels a week, and it has the ability to ramp up from there if necessary.
The company will use the latest in mass spectrometers, chromatography, and other instruments, not to mention spot- and peak-analysis and sample-tracking software, to tackle whatever research questions need urgent answers. "It's the marriage of the biology with the technology," Pirro says. "Other companies are going to try to mimic this, but it's going to be 10 years before they're even close."
At Front Line Strategic Consulting, a firm that has also studied the growth of proteomics, analyst Eric M. Manning says that proteomic services are not yet a big business -- perhaps a $70-million field now. "Proteomics is a buzzword that has gone stale," says Manning, who estimates proteomics overall will be a $2.7-billion business by 2008. "People don't get excited about proteomic technology per se. But this is a way to do protein biochemistry on a large scale, and a lot of drug development companies need to do that. Anybody who's conservative with cash would be interested in this."
All of the new Charles River services will be available on an "à la carte" basis -- if all you want to do is analyze the spots in some 2-D gels from a clinical trial, that's fine. On the other hand, Charles River can also help customers design a more comprehensive, end-to-end solution, from the collection of the biological materials to the analysis of the data. The price of the service will vary according to the volume and complexity of the task, Pirro says.
After surveying the industry, Charles River handpicked a variety of leading IT and instrument vendors: IBM, Shimadzu, Biotech, Millipore, Sigma-Aldrich, and Thermo Finnegan. Its closest ally, however, will be a 20 percent partner in the business: Proteome Systems.
That company, based in Australia, impressed Charles River as the most integrated provider of a variety of technologies essential for proteomics. One novel feature: The company's internal database will preserve superseded entries in public protein databases such as Swiss-Prot or TrEMBL, rather than just maintaining the latest data. Customers will be able to search the BioinformatIQ databases for information that may no longer exist in public databases a year or two after an experiment has run.
Monitoring Lab Progress Online
Another element that Proteome Systems offered, Pirro says, was a Web-enabled interface. A scientific manager in New Jersey will be able to watch the progress of what is happening at Pirro's facility in Worcester, Mass. Large drug companies have started to contract out proteomic research -- but are often left to wonder about how it is progressing. Says Pirro: "They have been handing over this critical material and forced to sit and wait and not be able to make decisions."
With the ProteomeIQ system, Pirro says, those paying the bills for proteomic work will be able to provide as much detail as they like about what they're looking for -- and, in midproject, tweak their requests to save money, time, or both by watching the lab's work unfold online. Says Pirro: "You can say, 'Don't pick spots in the acidic area -- I want spots in the basic area.’ Or, 'Don't pick any of these spots right here.'"
At Proteome Systems, CIO Warren McDonald notes that the system anticipates one of the key scientific concerns about proteomics: Can the data from an experiment be reproduced? To help drug companies figure that out, he says, data about the proteomic workflow are crucial -- and voluminous.
Three robots are devoted to only cutting out key dark patches in the protein gels, McDonald notes. Other instruments are also generating data all day; just keeping track of the information is not trivial. "That's not easily done by smaller Windows and Linux boxes," he says. "It takes a serious piece of iron to do that." For that, the company is using an IBM p690 server and a host of other technology from Big Blue. Despite all the science involved in doing proteomics at the cutting edge, McDonald says, "You're into a classical IT environment."