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November 27, 2006
Volume 84, Number 48
pp. 14-15

Research Initiative

Walking In The Customers' Shoes

Celia Henry Arnaud

You never know what somebody else's life is really like until you've walked a mile in his shoes. That's an adage Thermo Fisher Scientific is taking to heart at its Biomarker Research Initiatives in Mass Spectrometry Center in Cambridge, Mass.

Thermo Fisher Scientific
Diagnostic Scientists at the BRIMS Center use mass spectrometry to discover biomarkers of disease.

BRIMS is a joint venture between Thermo Fisher and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The center, which focuses on using mass spectrometry to identify disease biomarkers, gives the company a firsthand view of what customers really need. In addition to being Thermo Fisher employees, the center's staffers are themselves customers.

"We're addressing a real problem so we can clearly transfer the frustrations, expectations, and desires of our customers internally in the company," says Leo Bonilla, director of the BRIMS Center.

The center is a way for Thermo Fisher to establish credibility in the biomarker area by "undertaking a real project with real clinicians with real clinical samples," Bonilla says. He thought it was important to be physically near a critical mass of clinical researchers.

Biomarker research must contend with some of the biggest challenges facing mass spectrometry, especially issues of dynamic range. A group of 12 proteins accounts for about 90% of the proteins in blood plasma. Unfortunately, they aren't the interesting proteins, and they mask the ones that are present at much lower concentrations. There's approximately a 12-orders-of-magnitude linear dynamic range of protein concentrations in blood. Even if 99.9% of those most abundant proteins are removed, they still swamp the others.

"People conservatively think there are about 11 million molecularly distinct species in plasma, spanning a 12-orders-of-magnitude concentration range," Bonilla says. "The challenge is to find the few that are actually disease specific and are actually changing."

Bonilla and his Thermo Fisher colleagues concentrate on piecing together technology to address the challenges in biomarker discovery. "In the case of pieces that already exist in the Thermo Fisher portfolio, it's just a matter of tying them together in a logical work flow," Bonilla says. "If there are pieces that are missing in the work flow, we can invent them or acquire and evaluate them from other parties."

This arrangement is advantageous for the company. "When you have an internal customer like us, if we invent a solution, the intellectual property remains with Thermo Fisher," Bonilla says. Any biomarker intellectual property belongs to Mass General, with Thermo Fisher having the right to license it back.

The center has already started paying off in new products. Through the course of this work, BRIMS researchers have developed software tools that were launched at this year's American Society for Mass Spectrometry meeting.

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