Pittcon Report

April 7, 2020

The Column

Incognito observes some unexpected emerging trends at Pittcon 2020.

Incognito observes some unexpected emerging trends at Pittcon 2020.

I’ve just returned from the Pittcon meeting in Chicago. My travel was uneventful, even though it involved both domestic and international flights as well as local travel within the city and this itself was unusual. Aeroplanes had spare seating (a whole row to myself on one of the longest legs!), swift passage through customs and immigration, fast taxi journeys, and no issues with hotel bookings; unusual in the fact that I remember the days of the Pittcon meeting when it was literally like a stampede to get into and out of the city hosting the meeting that year.

On reaching the McCormick Place Convention Center, badge collection, which has become much more automated over the years, was eerily quiet with undergraduate volunteers literally fighting to help me procure my various badges, ribbons, and affiliate materials. Not typical at all.

To get a sense of the attendee profile (always interesting for me as I like to try and network with as many contacts who are outside the vendor community as possible), I positioned myself to the periphery of the entrance to the exhibition hall during the lunchtime recess on the first day of the exhibition (Tuesday 3 March). It’s easy to undertake a rough count as exhibitor staff have passes demarked with a green stripe and non-vendors a blue stripe, I guess to signal to vendors manning booths whether their passersby are premium targets for engagement. Over 65% of those who passed by (bear in mind this was a pretty approximate count and on one day) were of the green stripe variety and I would have thought the traffic was pretty representative during this time with delegates entering the exhibition hall after the technical sessions had ended and vendors taking an opportunity to grab a quick bite of lunch.

My favourite part of Pittcon is always the poster sessions. I find them a distillation of the meeting that can be quickly and easily absorbed and give a great sense of the big or emerging themes of the meeting (more on this later). At certain times (lunchtimes especially), one can hardly proceed down the poster aisles and much jostling usually occurs to get a good look at an interesting poster or speak with a presenter. No such thing this year and I made several visits to the poster aisles on each day.

The technical sessions are, of course, one of the main attractions of this meeting-the content and usefulness of the talks are always high quality. Anecdotally, with one or two exceptions, each of these sessions were less well attended than usual. Covid-19 may well be the reason that this Pittcon was relatively quiet in terms of attendance. Delegates from certain parts of Asia had been recommended not to attend and there were many posters and several technical presentations marked as “withdrawn”.

On a positive note: The number of technical sessions and posters provided by academic institutions has increased enormously, relative to those being presented by folks from “industry”, that is, not the vendor community. The amount of new research being presented is, in my opinion, a major benefit of the meeting. Ideas which are either nascent or, which in partnership with the vendors, are being developed into the instruments and applications of the future. It’s just what I need from a meeting of this type.

Another positive aspect of this year’s Pittcon meeting was the emergence of several main themes I had not been at all expecting. To be fair, I’ve had a pretty busy year since the last meeting in Philadelphia, and perhaps I’ve not been keeping up with the zeitgeist, but I was blown away by these new or rapidly developing themes and it’s worth me taking a little time to share some thoughts with you all, and perhaps to get your feedback on whether, in my older age, I’m just a little behind the times!

 

Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning/Chemometrics

Perhaps this was the most surprising aspect of the meeting, to the point at which it seemed we have almost given up talking about how to develop and optimize our chromatography, and are now concentrating on how to let computers do the work for us-or at least helping us to sort out the mess we created!

I learned about an algorithm for transforming tailing peaks into a Gaussian shape without changing their relative peak areas and for resolving overlapping peaks, again without changing relative peak areas. There was a fantastic explanation of how the analysis and comparison of dendritic trees, formed by a machine learning treatment of neutral loss spectra generated via direct analysis in real time high resolution mass spectrometry (DART–HR-MS), was able to discriminate between cathinone drugs, which gave only a single peak within a gas chromatography (GC)–MS (electron ionization [EI]) spectrum. I further learned how screening of chromatograms generated by high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) columns in a method development platform can lead to better informed choices of promising column chemistries through deep machine learning in which the model is “rewarded” (with digital treats presumably) when it makes smart choices of which experiments to run next! A further machine learning tool, this time supervised (presumably so that it doesn’t run off and misbehave), was able to identify disease states of patients from the analysis of the mass spectra of the glycoprofile of target peptides. There were a host of talks and posters on the use of artificial neural networks (ANN) to help develop better peak integration algorithms, identify functional groups from highly complex mass spectra, and to assist with peak and spectral deconvolution. There were more mentions of chemometrics and principal component analysis (PCA) than I can ever remember at any meeting, never mind a Pittcon meeting. I’m left with the feeling that I should be hiring more statisticians than chromatographers! Perhaps they can help me overcome my confusion at the power of statistics to help justify really bad decisions. Seriously, I’m saddened by my lack of knowledge in this area, which breeds an inherent suspicion that may be enough of a prejudice to delay the adoption of these enabling technologies in our laboratories. Mental note to take more time to consider the application of advanced statistical methods to assess how they may directly assist with my research.

Automation and Microfabrication

The efficiency and repeatability of instrument top sample preparation as well as the automation of sample manipulation and data analysis are having a resurgence of interest, and in total I counted 68 posters or technical session topics that included the keyword automation. I would add here that many of these sessions were related to pharmaceutical (including biopharmaceutical) analysis, and particularly for HPLC sample preparation-an area that has hitherto been largely, woefully underdeveloped. We learned about water companies using fully-integrated analytical instrument suites and laboratory information management systems (LIMS) to automate water quality monitoring and autonomously control critical inputs in water treatment. Fully automated systems for the development of pharmaceutical process monitoring analytics as well as integrated synthesis and analysis of novel active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) were also discussed. Advanced automated applications for every type of sample extraction were on display and, what’s more, several of these automated applications were the subject of miniaturization (microfabrication) and a fair number of them (or at least their critical components) had been fabricated using three-dimensional (3D) printing. Apparently, the use of 3D printing is especially applicable for microfabricated devices that use micro‑channels as these can be reproducibly “grown” from traditional 3D printing methods. My philosophy has always been that we should not fear automation, we should allow it to free us from repetitive and mundane tasks so that we can research, develop, and optimize new methods, and assess new or alternative technologies, which is a much better and more interesting use of our time! This emerging theme is one I personally fully embrace and am totally comfortable with. I’m still predicting that no laboratory will be without a 3D printer by 2025, even if it’s just to quickly produce spare parts for our instruments.

 

Cannabis

Analysis of, not smoking of-it wasn’t that type of conference! But who knew the world of cannabis analysis had grown so big, so fast? There were 87 technical presentations or posters and a short course that dealt, in some way, with the analysis of cannabis-related compounds-by far the biggest count by application type. It is fair to say that if I was able to start up a laboratory performing cannabis testing, I could easily do it with all of the methods revealed during the conference. I could undertake the testing of plants (including hemp of course), resins, or food products (including gummy bears!) for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), various other cannabinoids, terpenes, pesticides, moisture, and heavy metals. I could prepare samples using microwave digestion, solid-phase extraction (SPE), solid-phase microextraction (SPME), and solvent-free headspace extraction (HSE), and analyze the extracts using HPLC with time-of-flight mass spectrometry (TOF-MS) or triple quadrupole GC–MS or a photoionization detector (PID). I was even learning about which type of filter to use or not use with my extracts, statistical design of experiments (DOE) approaches to optimize my methods, or the use of chemometric approaches to analyze highly complex mass spectra. The wave of information and enthusiasm for cannabis testing was overpowering.

Perfluorinated Alkyl Substances (PFAS)

I learned that PFAS (of which there are over 5000 used commercially) are used to manufacture non-stick coatings, clothes and carpets that are stain-resistant, and fire‑resistant foams. Due to the strength of the carbon-fluorine bond, these materials do not degrade and are therefore among the most important emerging environmental pollutants. While their health impact is not yet fully understood, it is known that PFAS have the ability to bioaccumulate in humans, and the developing evidence shows that they may cause serious health issues.

There were 26 separate technical or poster sessions at the meeting that dealt with the analysis of PFAS and highlighted the challenge of PFAS analysis. I learned of methods to reduce or eliminate the constant background PFAS that arise from various sources, including our instruments, which is very important when analyzing short chain and ultrashort chain PFAS. There was also some very interesting presentations on novel methods of PFAS extraction, again with the aim of ultratrace detection, and involved some very neat tricks with “traditional” SPE approaches allied to both low and high resolution MS/MS detection. We also learned about the untargeted screening of PFAS, which used chemometric approaches, combining two of the emerging themes of the meeting!

New HPLC and GC Columns

With the odd exception, there were no new HPLC and GC columns. I see this as a “new” development for Pittcon, and whenever a column technology was mentioned, it was as part of a targeted application. I’m really not being flippant when I say that this is novel for a Pittcon meeting. I suspect that this isn’t due to a lack of innovation, simply a realization that columns per se don’t sell themselves anymore. Back in the mists of time I remarked to a vendor colleague that columns wouldn’t be sold by their bonded phase nomenclature (C18, C8, PHP), but they would be sold by application name such as vendor X PFAS column, vendor Y cannabis pesticides column. I think maybe this prediction is also beginning to come to fruition!

I realize that much of what I have discussed above is very general, however, if any of these topics are of further interest, I’m sure you can pick up the relevant details using a general Google search or indeed a search of the vendor websites. For me, even though it seemed quiter than usual and my travel remarkably uneventful, I still took a lot of useful information away from the conference.

So next year Pittcon will be in New Orleans. I wonder what the world will look like post Covid-19? Stay healthy everyone, there’s a lot of separating and detecting to be done yet!

Contact author: Incognito
E-mail the Editor:kjones@mjhlifesciences.com