It was something of a surprise to see Sony exhibit at the AACR meeting, and a bit more of a surprise to see that they have been successful in their quest to diversify out of the CD, DVD and BluRay manufacturing business.
iCyt is a company founded in Champaign Illinois, and in 2010 was acquired by Sony. They have introduced a flow cytometer and lower-end flow analyzer, and it is the flow cytometry application that at its center uses Sony-developed plasticware. Their ‘flagship’ unit (called the Cell Sorter SH800) uses at its center a disposable plastic microfluidic device pictured above.
This optical polycarbonate plastic appeared to be strangely familiar to me; familiar because I have seen this before from another company, RainDance Technologies. Sony DADC is their manufacturing presence worldwide for the precision molding of polycarbonate plastic, which is now starting to diversify into the life sciences. RainDance several years ago used to use a PDMS (polydimethylsiloxane)-based silicone microfluidic chip; the problem with this elastic compound was that it had to be poured into a silicon mold by hand, and then applied to a glass substrate.
From a product perspective, these microfluidic chips were not inexpensive to make; it requires a silicon micromachined mold (made via microlithography), but these molds had a limited number of PDMS-based chips it could stamp out before it had to be replaced. On top of the mold expense, they were made by hand, via a skilled technician. I once observed the manufacturing process at RainDance headquarters in Lexington MA, and while it is impressive, the labor involved to manufacture a chip is an expense that Sony’s technology solves.
And if I learned anything while I was at RainDance in 2009, it was that cost-of-goods (known colloquially as ‘COGS’) really matter, because if it’s expensive to make, it is that much more expensive for the customer.
The folks at Sony showed me a video of their manufacturing process, which was obviously taken under Class 1000 clean-room conditions. Thinking about it, the technician who was taking the video was in a Class 1000 environment, the robot was viewed through a window, so it was likely a much higher specification inside the robotic work area.
At any rate, the video showed the plastics being poured, disassembled from the mold, and then glued together to form the microfluidic channels for their i-Cyt flow cytometer. Definitely modern space-age stuff here, a process that is automated and able to be replicated as needed.
What is the benefit of this? Does it matter that the i-Cyt uses a disposable microfluidic chip?
The answer is that flow cytometry instrumentation requires highly technical training, that is manufacturer-specific. If you are in a core facility with a BD Biosciences instrument, you will want your analyses done by a technician (and only that technician) who has been trained and works regularly with that particular instrument. Up until now customers have come to expect that for reproducible and reliable results, they need to have specialized instrument operators and lab technicians who have invested a lot of time and effort into being training on how to operate the instrument.
Sony is tackling this problem with their expertise in manufacturing; the question is now one of customer habit and expectation. Flow cytometry has been around since the mid-1980′s, and the specialized calibration and setup that is instrument- and manufacturer-specific is part of that expectation. Their instruments are not that much less expensive than their competition, but are a lot easier to setup.
One other aspect of their flow-cytometry systems that they promote is their electronics expertise, in particular their digital to analog (and analog to digital) capability. They showed an advanced photomultiplier tube (PMT) and optical technology that enables 32-color fluorescent separations, which in the context of flow-cytometry would be remarkable to multiplex a sample with that many markers.
Sony has been active in the life sciences; this piece describes an organ-on-a-chip technology from Quanterix that will use Sony’s DADC, here’s another one about a partnership with a company called Axela, and Caliper (now part of Perkin-Elmer) will be developing their next-generation of microfluidics on this platform. And out of all these efforts (there are several others that are ongoing), you can count on seeing more of this technology in the future.
Getting back to Sony’s i-Cyt product, several questions are raised. Will this mean that the flow cytometry market will change? Will their competition be able to make their own instruments easy to calibrate against this threat? Will Sony become a major life-sciences vendor with their engineering and other expertise? Speaking with the Sony folks at AACR, it is clear that they know where they are going, and are organizing their efforts (hiring quality people, etc.) accordingly.