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Q & A: Trends in Life Sciences Spectroscopy

BioPhotonics
Jan 2011
Laura S. Marshall, Managing Editor, laura.marshall@photonics.com

Optical spectroscopy can be used to monitor nearly everything with which we come into contact – food, water, air, chemicals – as well as the state of our health and the health of our world. It can be used in research labs and in industrial settings for quality assurance or in hospitals for analysis and diagnosis.

Keeping in mind the broad range of applications and, indeed, of spectroscopic instruments from which to choose, BioPhotonics reached out to major players in the industry to gain some insight into where life sciences spectroscopy stands today and where it is going in the future.


The NeoFox oxygen sensor system from Ocean Optics Inc. can be used to monitor fish respiration, among other applications.


Q: What do you see as the next big thing in spectroscopy in general?


A: Rob Morris, director of marketing at Ocean Optics Inc. in Dunedin, Fla.: There is some interesting work being done with detectors to make them even smaller and less expensive but without sacrificing performance. Also, the idea of patterning optical thin-film filters on active photo-detector substrates opens up opportunities in solid-state spectral sensing, from more precise color detection to enhanced multispectral imaging.

A: Dr. Brian Curtiss, co-founder and chief technology officer at ASD Inc. in Boulder, Colo.: While there are some industries that typically have in-house capabilities to fully develop a spectroscopic analytical solution, there are others that don’t. I think companies that can provide the complete solution – from instrumentations, software, installation and support to calibrations … and wherever they are needed – will be the ones that really thrive.


LabSpec products from ASD Inc. were designed for raw materials testing and process optimization on a wide selection of materials, including pharmaceutical tablets, biomass analysis, and biofuels inspection and analysis.


A: Dr. Richard A. Larsen, spectroscopy product manager at Jasco Inc. in Easton, Md.: This is so hard to predict because there are so many exciting things happening, even in a field as “mature” as spectroscopy. We do see Raman spectroscopy being utilized for more and different sample analysis, as well as vibration circular dichroism (VCD) finally securing a place among the “standard” molecular spectroscopy techniques.


The NRS-5000/7000 Raman microscopy systems from Jasco Inc. are laser Raman spectrometers for rapid acquisition of data with automated system control and minimal optical adjustments.


Q: What do you see as the next big thing in spectroscopy for the life sciences?


A: Morris: Ultrafast spectroscopy certainly is an area worth keeping an eye on. But the next big thing in spectroscopy may actually not be a spectrometer at all. There are newer detection technologies – advanced filter-based techniques, for example – that may reshape how we think of spectroscopy. Although it’s become almost a cliché to mention the Star Trek tricorder as an example of science fiction edging closer to science fact, the reality is that what once seemed fantastical is now firmly in the realm of possibility.

A: Curtiss: Near-infrared spectroscopy instrumentation has advanced to the level that it provides life sciences companies more complete data on biologically derived raw materials. These materials have been challenging to measure in the past because they are chemically complicated and vary over time. Instrumentation solutions need to be flexible due to the variable nature of the materials. Not only is NIR getting better at performing measurements in the laboratory, but the instrumentation necessary for in-process real-time measurements is now available. Given growing interest in improving processes involving biologically derived raw materials, there is a growing need for these types of analysis.

A: Larsen: We definitely see the potential for VCD spectroscopy as securing a place for the life sciences analysis arena. To date, VCD has been utilized only for the analysis of chiral compounds, but as more users embrace this technology, we feel that future developments will increase and important discoveries will be made with this instrument in conjunction with other spectroscopy techniques.


The FVS-6000 high-performance vibrational circular dichroism (VCD) spectrometer from Jasco Inc. allows easy collection of fingerprint VCD spectra. Jasco produces a number of products for life sciences research efforts, including UV-VIS, Raman, Fourier transform infrared, fluorescence, circular dichroism and VCD.


Q: What new and exciting spectroscopy advances are you seeing coming out of R&D and university labs?

A: Morris: The great news is that it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on at the university level. For example, there are researchers working on ways to better measure the output of curing lights used in dentistry. The technology is relatively familiar, but what’s exciting is these folks have identified a need – the number of dental fillings that are not properly cured – and built a business around it.

A: Curtiss: One study that has received a lot of attention was conducted by a group of USDA [US Department of Agriculture] and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists on the tsetse fly, the host for African trypanosomiasis, better known as sleeping sickness. This is a deadly disease for both livestock and humans. The World Health Organization says that about 50,000 human deaths are reported annually from this disease. Using near-infrared spectroscopy, the researchers were able to determine the sex of the flies before they emerged from pupae stage. By sorting the insects based on spectroscopic techniques, then releasing only the sterilized males, they believe they can help control the spread of this disease. Another example is how biofuel feedstocks for cellulosic ethanol are being derived from nonedible plant parts like cornstalk and wood chips. Since these materials are compositionally complex and highly variable, they present a real analytical challenge. Ongoing research at the National Renewable Energy Research Laboratory is focusing on these challenges, and near-infrared analysis is playing a large part in the solutions.

A: Larsen: R&D and research labs are continually using established spectroscopy instrumentation to push the boundaries of current capabilities for molecular research. As these laboratories continue to require advances in the instrumentation that they utilize, companies like Jasco will continue to innovate, design and manufacture the spectroscopic tools required for research in various fields. Research continues in materials analysis, nanomaterials, life sciences, semiconductors and chiral molecules, just to name a few. The mission of every instrument manufacturer is to provide the necessary tools and techniques to aid researchers in their quest for answers, no matter the types of samples to be examined.

Q: How would you say the market has been in the past few years for spectroscopy in general?

A: Morris: Like most companies, we experienced the effects of a weakened economy in the US. But we’ve experienced the beginnings of a very healthy rebound that suggests folks are much more bullish about their prospects and still mindful that research leads to growth. Also, I’ve noticed that technologies often associated with biotechnology and life sciences – Raman, for example – seem particularly robust these days.

A: Curtiss: The market in general has survived very well through the recession. From our perspective, we saw that the industrial segment shrank, and the research segment actually strengthened enough so that there wasn’t a significant drop in business overall. We saw this internationally, not just domestically. The growth of the research segment appears largely to be due to stimulus funding put into place both in the US and China.

A: Larsen: Naturally, the worldwide economic situation has slowed some areas of growth, but areas involving materials analysis, nutriceuticals analysis, solar and bio-energy products, consumer goods, food analysis and many other analysis requirements continue to push the boundaries of utility for spectroscopy instrumentation.

Q: How would you say the market has been in the past few years for life sciences spectroscopy?

A: Morris: To follow my thread from the prior question, the market has been especially good in the life sciences. That seems to be where the most exciting new developments are happening. In the US, stimulus money from the federal government has helped, although it’s difficult to gauge its impact on our business. If you think about the scientific developments that reach the mainstream media, they’re almost always from the life sciences.

A: Curtiss: Again, we’re seeing a lot of funding coming in, particularly from stimulus dollars. There is more focus on incoming raw material inspection, and changing FDA requirements to evaluate materials are also driving the industry.

A: Larsen: Continuously expanding as more and more users try to unravel the answers to protein conformation, protein interactions and solving the mysteries of cellular chemistry.

Q: Where do you think the market is going for spectroscopy in general?


A: Morris: We are very optimistic, generally, that the US market will continue its rebound. And certainly China and the Asia Pacific region are growing tremendously. I don’t have a great feel for what new technologies might emerge in spectroscopy in the next several years, but my sense is that speed and ease of use will be major components of those technologies.

A: Curtiss: I think [we will see] significant growth beyond materials inspection to materials analysis. It’s not enough to provide customers with the means to collect spectroscopic data, you must also provide the software tools and calibrations necessary to convert that data into actionable information. The other market driver I see is the need to measure materials in real time, not just sending samples off to a lab. NIR spectroscopy is well suited to quickly measure relevant constituents either near-line or in process.

A: Larsen: I believe that the spectroscopy market will continue to expand as the ordinary consumer requires better products, at lower prices, with high-quality standards. One cannot solve these various requirements without the use of spectroscopy instrumentation.

Q: Where do you think the market is going for life sciences spectroscopy?

A: Morris: Of course, our perspective is colored by where we see opportunity for our core spectroscopy and fiber optic chemical sensing technologies. Expansion of what we know as lab on a chip – typically associated with microfluidics – to be a sort of wavelength-selective measuring device is certainly intriguing.

A: Curtiss: There are growing concerns over counterfeit pharmaceuticals. I think there’s a bigger public health issue, certainly in developing countries. A staggering percentage of drugs that get to patients in many developing countries are counterfeit – in some countries, as high as 70 to 80 percent. It’s appalling. This often makes treating the disease more difficult by making the disease-causing organism more resistant to the actual drug. NIR quickly measures relevant ingredients, including the active pharmaceutical ingredient, binders, colorants and excipients. The measurement process occurs rapidly, usually within a second or two, without tampering with the sample.

A: Larsen: This area will also continue to expand as researchers try to solve worldwide problems related to AIDS and other viral diseases, degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzeimer’s as well as continued research into cancer, diabetes and other “plagues” of humankind.

Q: What are the biggest challenges to new advances in spectroscopy, especially for the life sciences?

A: Morris: I am oversimplifying this, but my observation is the smaller, more nimble companies are often limited by resources, while the resource-rich larger companies are often limited by bureaucracy. This has the effect of slowing down development and discovery. Another issue is the role of [the US] government in the life sciences. Funding is critical, of course, but there is also the issue of the government working in a complementary fashion with private industry for the benefit of all. Some would suggest that’s not always the case.

A: Curtiss: There’s not a lot of comfort level with NIR spectroscopy because many life scientists did not learn NIR as a primary research tool; thus, utilizing NIR spectroscopy can be intimidating for them. Also, with every new application, there’s a very large effort that has to go into calibration modeling. While there are some industries that typically have in-house capabilities to fully develop a spectroscopic analytical solution, there are others that do not. In life sciences, you have a particular challenge because the biologically derived raw materials being analyzed are chemically complicated and can vary over time. There is no uniform product for the materials so if you are manufacturing something, whether it be pharmaceuticals or next-generation biofuels, you have a challenge in creating a uniform product. So it is necessary to work with a company that provides a complete solution through not just the instrumentation, software and hardware that can accurately analyze the raw materials, but also through all of the customer support to know the calibrations necessary to provide production models that take all of those multivariant materials into consideration. It is only through this complete approach that they will be able to predict product yield, establish better product consistency and more tightly manage production processes.

A: Larsen: Trying to manufacture new instrumentation that is user-friendly and less complicated so that users can obtain reliable answers without extensive training. This will allow researchers, R&D and QA/QC personnel to concentrate on the questions, instead of the instrument operations required to obtain the answers to the questions posed by scientists.

Q: Lastly, which application areas would you say are thriving today – and why?

A: Morris: In life sciences we observe a significant amount of work in biomedical diagnostics. That’s no big surprise, of course, given that the world faces many issues related to the quality of life around the planet. There also seem to be many applications involving the use of lasers to stimulate fluorescent markers and tags, for example, which require high-sensitivity detection technologies such as Raman.

A: Curtiss: We’re seeing a huge interest in better understanding of global climate, particularly the interaction between the Earth’s surface and atmosphere as it relates to atmospheric CO2. A specific project with which ASD is involved is finding ways to maximize soil carbon storage. Organic carbon plays a major role in how well a cultivated field holds moisture, provides nutrients and remains productive, so there’s some crossover interest into the agriculture industry. The ideal goal being, of course, to grow healthier crops while helping to offset greenhouse gas emissions from other sources.

A: Larsen: Protein analysis continues to thrive, as there are numerous questions involved in protein interaction. No one tool can provide all the answers to these questions, so the life sciences laboratory needs to continually investigate a variety of instruments, each one of which can provide a small piece of the puzzle. This includes previously underutilized techniques such as VCD and Raman spectroscopy, as well as many others. No single instrument or technique can provide all the answers, so all the available tools must be utilized to their fullest extent.


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