Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Introducing the Cytometry and Antibody Technology Facility (CAT)

I can never tell if and when things like this become "official."  It's not like administrators are going to put out a letter to the University announcing such things, so I thought I'd mark the occasion with a post about it.  What is "it" you say?  For years the Flow Cytometry Facility and Fitch Monoclonal Antibody Facility have been working together in a cooperative spirit.  These efforts have mostly surrounded the creation of custom conjugated antibodies for use on our systems.  They will now be fostered more deliberately in the formation of a new facility.  And so it is with great pleasure that I announce that these two titans of technology shall become one - introducing the Cytometry and Antibody Technology Facility, CAT for short.  Now, I must admit, I'm not crazy about the name either, but give it a chance, it'll grow on you.  Just keep thinking to yourself, co-STAN-za!  Don't worry, UCFlow is not going away.  The two subcores will retain their identities and remain pretty much intact, however we'll be able to leverage each other's resources to create some interesting new services for you.


The birth of a mAb:  Two cell divisions shortly after a subclone
If you've read entries here before, then you're probably familiar with UCFlow, so let me tell you a bit about our new partners, the Fitch Monoclonal Antibody Facility.  For starters, the 'Fitch' part of the name is referring to cellular immunologist Frank W. Fitch, MD’53, SM’57, PhD’60 (University of Chicago), the Albert D. Lasker professor emeritus of pathology and the Ben May Institute, who joined Chicago’s faculty in 1957. As the institute’s third director, Fitch oversaw its growth into a collection of laboratories working in multiple areas of cancer research. A teacher and a mentor who encouraged students to think creatively while still abiding by scientific rigor, Fitch has also served as the editor in chief of the Journal of Immunology and as president of the American Association of Immunologists.  He was a pioneer of antibody technology and was the founder of the Monoclonal Antibody Facility.  Today, the facility's technical director is Ms. Carol McShan who has over 30 years of experience with tissue culture techniques, and novel monoclonal production.  A major thrust of the facility over the years has been the production of novel monoclonal antibodies.  This involves immunizing mice (or rats) with the specific antigen, screening the mice for a response, fusing the mouse's splenocytes with an immortalized fusion partner to create hybridomas, and finally subcloning and screening the hybridomas according to the end use of the antibody (flow cytometry, immunofluorescence, western blotting, etc...).  In addition to novel monoclonal production, the facility also produces high-titer antibody supernatant, purified antibodies, and fluorescently coupled antibodies.  A complete list of services can be found on their web site:  fitchantibodies.uchicago.edu.

Hollow Fiber Bioreactors, utilized to produce high titer mAb.
Before we talk about what's in store for our joined future, let's discuss why I think this makes sense.  I'm going to throw out a couple of economics terms to try and make a correlation to how things are done in the for-profit business world and then tie them back to what we're doing here.  What we're really talking about here is a transition from lateral expansion to vertical expansion (or integration).  My buddy wikipedia tells me that lateral expansion is the growth of a business enterprise through the acquisition of similar companies, in the hope of achieving economies of scale.  Think of BD purchasing Cytopeia or Accuri.  They gain scale due to the significant install base of these instruments.  In a lot of ways this is pretty typical of successful companies.  It can be a quick way to really expand your business and can lead to even greater growth.  This lateral expansion sums up the past few years of the flow cytometry facility.  We've added lots of pieces of equipment, grew our business, and expanded considerably.  All of this expansion was pretty much of the same stuff - that is, cytometers.  No, we weren't out 'buying up' other core facilities or things like that, but in our own way, we experienced a sort of lateral expansion.  But there comes a point when you've pretty much maxed out this horizontally-directed growth and you need to pivot.  So, what's the next logical step?  You guessed it; vertical integration.

Vertical expansion therefore, is the growth of a business enterprise through the acquisition of companies that produce the intermediate goods needed by the business or help market and distribute its product.  This type of vertical pipeline integration is another very common strategy employed by companies.  When BD purchased Pharmingen, that's exactly what was going on.  If you are making the reagents that will be used on your instruments, you can control the entire package and make sure everything fits together nicely.  This also works in reverse too.  I'll remind you of the acquisition of Guava (and later, Amnis) by Millipore, or Invitrogen purchasing Applied Biosystems (becoming Life Technologies) and getting the supply of hardware to complement their reagents.  This is sort of how I see the "merger" of UCFlow and the Fitch Monoclonal Facility.  We can leverage the expertise in reagent development and production from the Monoclonal Facility so that our users have affordable and efficient access to commonly used reagents and will therefore be able to do more experiments with their limited funding (cf. more recharge revenue).  Hopefully the synergy of expert reagent production and state-of-the-art technology will create a positive feedback loop for both sub-cores.

So what can you expect in the future?  Our main focus at the start will be an expansion of the current Hybridoma Bank.  Right now, the facility can produce purified antibody from 21 hybridomas including such favorites as anti-CD4 (GK1.5), anti-CD8 (2.43), the FC blocking antibody 2.4G2, anti-CD3 (2C11),  NK1.1, CD19, anti-GFP, and many more.  If we can get the hybridomas for an antibody, we can add it to our list.  The next step to this is creating a plan to quickly couple these antibodies to a wide range of fluorochromes on-demand.  We've spent some time with the Lightning Link technology from Innova Biosciences and it looks promising.  This system allows for coupling to a good range of colors in as little as 20 minutes.  We're still exploring many options, so if you have a favorite setup, let us know.  We're excited about the prospects for this new phase of growth in the facility and will keep you posted about new developments as they happen.