Friday, January 7, 2011

The Beckman Coulter Gallios and Translational Research at UCFlow

Have you ever had a frantic MD fellow rush into the lab with a rack full of tubes saying, "A patient just showed up and I have these samples that I need to run now.  Is there any instrument time available?"  A couple of years ago, I would have said no, but this scenario has become more and more common around here.  As the lines between the clinic and the research bench become ever more blurred, the needs of the community in a research medical center begin to expand.  The major variable in this whole arena is a fickle creature we like to call a human being.  You see, unlike mice, they don't get sick when you tell them to and you can't force them to fit into your schedule, so you have no choice but to modify your service to accommodate the unpredictable nature of clinical research.  The perceived lack of access to the core by clinical researchers has also been the driving force behind individual researchers' desire to work outside of the core and invest in their own instrumentation.  In principle, I don't really have a problem with this, but as a business model in a University, I think it's very inefficient.  We have spent years perfecting our craft in the flow lab.  In fact, we possess a collective 25+ years of experience operating, maintaining, and troubleshooting flow cytometers and sorters.  It's difficult to see why someone would want to side-step all that knowledge. But, I digress...

At the same time we were scratching our heads as to how we could offer this group of clinical researchers greater access to flow instrumentation while not taking away capacity from our large and active group of basic researchers, we were evaluating and testing an instrument called the Gallios from Beckman Coulter.  The Gallios is a fine piece of hardware.  It has some of the things you'd expect of an analyzer from Coulter, flashing lights (like the FC500), a carousel loader, a fairly locked-down box.  But it also has some new/unexpected things.  They took a cue from the success BD has had marketing the "Octagon" and came up with their own design called the "Boulevard."  It basically serves the same purpose; bounce light off filters, don't transmit light through a bunch of filters.  They deliver light to the Boulevard via a fiber cable coupled to a pinhole for the appropriate laser - pretty much the same as a BD instruments.  Another interesting optical component is the laser launch module.  The solid state lasers shoot their beam into a steering tower that has motor controlled micrometers which allows for remote alignment.  Laser light to the flow cell is delivered in air, not fiber, as to maximize energy at the point of illumination.  These two things make the Gallios pretty much optically on par with an LSRII.  There's a unique FSC detector that tries to look at different angles of refraction to better resolve small particles, but since I don't care too much about that, I'll skip it.  The thing that sets the Gallios apart from the DiVa setup is in fact the electronics.  I won't attempt to explain the architecture of both platforms here, but will simply cut to the chase.  More bits of resolution across 4 or 5 log decades leads to better resolution of dimly stained cells when comparing two instruments that are optically pretty similar.  So, in my testing, I was able to resolve dim stuff from background better on the Gallios than on my LSRII, and the reason that's the case, in my opinion, is the higher resolution electronics on the Gallios (especially when comparing the 1st and 2nd decade of the scale).  The last thing about the Gallios was its optical stability. Again, comparing it to our LSRII, which we tweak the alignment more frequently than we'd like to, the Gallios is rock solid.  It probably compares pretty well to the optical stability of a FACSCanto-II (as I've heard from others who have one - I only have FACSCanto-As, which I don't like at all).  But, even as of yesterday, about 10 months after install, the beads look exactly the same.  I've never seen any of my instruments not need a little tweak of the alignment after 10 months of use.  That was impressive.

So, I had an instrument that seemed to work really well for us, and I had a problem with capacity for last-minute clinical research use.  Are you thinking what I'm thinking???  You got it, kill two birds with one stone (figuratively of course; I don't condone the practice of killing anything with stones).  So, I wrote a proposal to the department to pitch the idea of buying the Gallios and opening it up to our clinical research group only.  This would free them from worrying about having time booked in advance on one of our instruments.  In fact, booking time on the instrument wouldn't even be allowed more than 48 hours in advance.  Thankfully the department liked the idea, awarded us the money, and we're developing the usage plan now to offer this service to our Translational Research groups.  To sweeten the deal a bit, we offered to expand our Drop-off service so that clincian/researchers who did not have a lab full of techs could simply drop the samples off to us and we would run them on the Gallios and give them back a preliminary analysis of the data.  Win-Win-Win for all.