Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Cell Sorter in Every Lab. Can Core Facilities Survive?

 It happens in every industry across all times - What initially requires sophistication and expertise becomes simpler and more accessible to the masses and the former "experts" feel threatened and rail against the advancements.  For many years, Flow Cytometry core facilities cornered the market on ALL cytometry taking place at an institution.  As instruments became easier to use, some facilities allowed their users to begin operating the analyzers unassisted.  Affordable flow cytometers first came to market in the form of the Guava with some success, and then, in late 2006, Accuri exploded on the scene with it's affordable, easy-to-use C6 analyzer.  Undoubtedly, these instruments were marketed to individual investigators seemingly bypassing core facilities altogether.

The last stronghold of core facilities seemed to be cell sorting.  Alas, these instruments are sufficiently complicated as to assure even the most skittish of core facility technologist. That was, until easy-to-use sorters became more available.  The FACSAria (BD) was marketed as the first bench-top cell sorter capable of doing everything its more complicated predecessors could do.  That didn't pan out so well, much to the chagrin of BD.  However, after multiple iterations of the FACSAria, as well as other, easy-to-use cell sorters, we're on the cusp of a turning point in cell sorting, much like that day in 2006 when Accuri launched its C6.  In fact, here at the University of Chicago, we've jumped on this bandwagon with both feet, adding the BioRad S3 Cell Sorter to our group of cell sorters.  In addition to training users to operate the FACSAria's, we now can spend much less time training users to sort on the S3.  For a user who is familiar with the general operation of a flow cytometer, we can get them proficient on the S3 in less than a half hour.  Now, roughly one third of simple sort clogging up the FACSAria schedules can be done on the S3 with no increase in facility personnel and minimal increase in facility operating expenses.  Win/Win/Win!

However, some of us in the field may feel like this is yet another assault on our job security.  "If I don't control the sorting, what will I do all day."  I think this view is extremely myopic.  From an economic standpoint, it's always better to get something for nothing than to have to put real resources into doing it.  When you think about it more closely, if we don't have to expend resources into operating cell sorters, we can focus those resources on other important things.  I mean, it's sort of silly to have a trained professional sitting in front of a cell sorter drawing regions around GFP+ cells.  These types of sorts can easily be transferred back to the user once she is trained to operate a basic cell sorter.  This frees up time for the experts to focus on the cutting-edge stuff or development work.

This whole discussion then turns to a more philosophical discourse on what the role of resource core facilities will be in the future.  It's time to pivot, folks!  Gone are the days of a facility with 1.25 FTE's per cell sorter, staring at dots popping up on the screen all afternoon.  The business side of me wants to focus less on hardware recharge and more on services.  Why be a warehouse of hardware, when you can be the (more lucrative) service center.  Let's assume, for a moment, that cell sorters like the S3 or Sony's SH800 become so solid and affordable that many labs decide to buy their own.  Facilities focused solely on hardware recharge revenue will quickly spiral towards obsolescence. Facilities focused on services will already have other revenue streams to compensate for the lost hardware recharge.  Allow me to illustrate with a few examples.

Sample processing as a service (SPaaS):  An investigator has an idea for an experiment on a cohort of patients seen in the clinic.  We, as a core facility can coordinate pick-up of blood tubes from the phlebotomist, process the blood, bank the plasma and cells, and then stain the cells using standard panels and perform cytokine bead assays, microparticle analysis, or other assay on the plasma.  Translational applications like this are not only becoming more and more common, but many times those investigators in the best position to do these studies do not have large research labs set up to do this themselves.  Since we're not sitting in front of the FACSAria 8 hours a day, we now have time to develop these panels, and market this service.

Internal Instrument Service and Maintenance (IISM):  Investigators start purchasing their own analyzers/sorters, however, they may not have the skill, time, or resources to perform routine service and maintenance.  We, in the core facility already have the know-how to fix many of the issues on these instruments, and we have the SOPs in place to perform the necessary maintenance and quality assurance.  Instead of paying a service contract fee to BD AND having to do all the routine maintenance themselves, the investigators could contract the flow core facility to perform maintenance and service.  The core facility can, in turn, take out a self-insurance policy to maintain the instrument and recover actual costs.  The more instruments the facility can perform this service on, the better insulated you can be against catastrophic incidents.  This is essentially the model I've been using in my own lab; Budget 50% of the cost of a service contract, and pay for service calls as needed.  In the 15+ years I've been around, we've never lost money.  This works only because the number of instruments is sufficiently large.  The use, operation, and initial investment of the hardware took place completely outside the core facility.  The investigators' staff and students need training?  We can do that!  They want to assure the instrument is performing optimally?  We can do that!  They need someone to come fix the instrument because it's not working?  We can do that!  Or, if we can't, we call the OEM and pay for a service call.

Of course, there will still be other technologies associated with a traditional core facility that will still follow the normal hardware use recharge model.  High-end cytometers/sorters, imaging cytometers (a la the ImageStream), mass cytometry (CyTOF), etc...  However, we can anticipate these technologies following suit.  Soon, the CyTOF will be super easy to run, and imaging technologies will be simpler and simpler (e.g. the FlowSight).  As these technologies become commoditized like analyzers and now cell sorters, it's going to be service-focused facilities that will stand the test of time.