The Post-Pittcon Post-Mortem

April 24, 2015
The Column
Volume 11, Issue 7

Incognito offers his views on Pittcon 2015. What were your experiences like and did you have any arguments?

Incognito offers his views on Pittcon 2015. What were your experiences like and did you have any arguments?

It was warm and sunny as we emerged into New Orleans for Pittcon - 12 h later than we should have arrived and following a tortuous 34 h of travel (including one missed flight connection). I know the frequent travellers out there will mock and consider this a trifling journey, but I'm guessing your boarding group isn't somewhere after the cargo and livestock and your flying position is horizontal rather than semi-vertical! I have also often wondered what cartel operates to retain the Pittsburgh Conference (Pittcon) at a range of locations that are wholly inaccessible, or highly inclement at the time of year of Pittcon. It used to be said that there were only certain convention centres large enough to accommodate the meeting, but that was in Pittcon's heyday and I'm really not sure that this is true anymore. All of that being said, I do realize that to be able to attend the meeting at all puts me in a very privileged position for which I'm very grateful.

Photo Credit: Epoxydude/Getty Images

In previous years, I have often reported on my adventures at Pittcon with a general summary of the meeting, but this time I've decided to change things up a little. Before I start that, I do want to say that this year both the technical programme and exhibition were very good and that we saw the return of some notable large vendors following a period of absence in recent years (One or two of the big guns do continue to shun the meeting). We also seem to have reduced the number of oral sessions whose titles are "pimped" compared to the actual content, which saved me quite a lot of "lecture hopping" this year. Once again, the poster sessions were excellent and anyone who is a regular reader of this column will know that I'm a big fan. It's a superb way to distil the highlights of new product introductions and the technical programme into manageable chunks so that nothing of significance is missed. It's also a great opportunity to speak with folks that you wouldn't get the chance to in the oral sessions, where there is often not enough time for lengthy discussion.

So, to the new Pittcon review approach that I am calling "Arguments I had at Pittcon". Obviously these are scientific arguments, not the type I had with a TSA official who, after an hour of queueing, told me that the boarding card I had was "For yesterday and sir you will need to return to your airline desk" - it really isn't all Hurricanes at Pat O'Brien's and Jazz at Generations Hall.

Argument 1: Microfabricated Paper-Based Analytical Device

While reading a poster I hadn't intended to visit titled "Colorimetric pH Paper with a Scale Bar" (Yeongbeom Cho, Hanyang University, Korea), I overheard one passerby mumble to another some derogatory comments regarding a degree of wheel reinvention. The device was a five-layer, wax-paper-based microfluidic device that resembles a mercury thermometer, onto which a sample is spotted and the hydrophilic coating causes the sample to rise past 14 colorimetric indicators. Result - an almost instantaneous measurement of pH (if eight indicators change colour on the scale then the pH is around 8) without having to wait for three pH sensitive pads to change colour and then compare them to the colour scale on the packaging (that you may or may not be able to find), or having to calibrate and use a pH meter. In my opinion, an excellent example of lateral thinking.

Needless to say I had to interject between the derisory comments to inform my fellow Pittcon-eers that they should step out of the woods to see the trees. I asked them to Google "Microfabricated paper-based analytical devices" and see some of the excellent work being carried out at several centres around the world, not least of which includes Richard Crook's group in the Center for Nano- and Molecular Science and Technology at the University of Texas at Austin (USA) and the group from Hanyang University (Korea), who do some wonderful basic research into lab-on-a-chip technology. I also remarked that if one were really to future gaze, there are several paper-based microchannel devices in research that measure critical properties of peptides and proteins and which may, one day, do us out of our jobs. That would be ironic as the reinvented wheel rolls right over us all!

Argument 2: Relative Merits or Demerits of Chiral Core–Shell Particles

I still can't find anyone who produces the common (widely used) phases commercially and I still don't know why.

I heard many arguments why one wouldn't consider this approach during Pittcon week including the following: a) Limited loadability - doesn't really wash with me because it didn't when folks used this argument against the technology at the analytical-scale from the mid-1970s onwards. b) No requirement for faster or higher efficiency chiral separations - give me a break. c) The main commercial market for chiral separations is in preparative columns and who would use a core–shell material for preparative separations? Er, me - I'll take a narrower band (less solvent) with 70% comparative mass loading any day of the week! d) Manufacturers are enjoying the spoils of producing large diameter columns packed with grams of highly expensive materials and wouldn't actually want to reduce this alongside their profits? Requirement to optimize the core-to-shell ratio - well get on with it then!

I've been told the bonding process is very similar whether on core–shell or fully porous substrates, so I'm still struggling to see why I don't see these columns in catalogues. I would use them! Maybe it's just a matter of time or that I'm not looking in the right places, after all there is at least one high profile research group working on the technology that I know of...

Argument 3: Supercritical Fluid Flash Chromatography

Several groups are working on the technology to make this happen and I've read two or three key papers that outline the challenges to making this technology a reality; however, I keep being told that even when perfected, the technique will have limited applicability. Really?

I'm not a synthetic or medicinal chemist, but I've seen plenty of flash purifications in my time and almost without fail these end up with solvent having to be got rid of in some way (to preconcentrate to achieve analytical sensitivity, to recover product). Would it not be a significant step forwards if someone could produce a system that recycles the CO2 (money-saving technology that already exists at the analytical scale) and elutes the fractions with the minimum amount of polar organic modifier? I know that someone out there will explain why this doesn't make great sense -please get in touch if you are that person at

Argument 4: Accessibility of Simple Statistical Methods for Method Robustness Determination or Estimation of Analytical Error

Again, whilst reading a poster from Leah Buhler of Merck entitled "Utilization of Design of Experiments to Characterize HPLC Method Precision and Robustness in Early Pharmaceutical Development" I overheard a conversation regarding the statistical validity (actually the statistical power) of the approach which had been taken. The poster demonstrated that with a combination of reasonably simple statistical methods (a simple design of experiment (DoE) and results treatment) allied with good knowledge of the chromatography, one can relatively easily arrive at a single number assessment of the error contribution of the analytical determination to the accuracy of the result when determining, for example, the impurity profile resulting from active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) manufacture.

It was great to see a large pharmaceutical company taking a practical and usable approach to such problems. Believe me, I talk to a large number of folks in laboratories around the world who find quality-by-design (QbD) or statistical methods simply inaccessible, because of the complexity or a lack of experience in the software or methodologies.


I really don't care if methods have enough statistical power to be bullet-proof. What I think we should all care about is the fact that, when combined with sensible decision-making regarding the range and scope of critical variables in the analytical process and the significance of the results when these variables are tested, such approaches can be accessible and usable by more people to improve their methods and save valuable time in the laboratory!

Well done to Leah and coworkers on this very nice approach and boo to the statistical purists - I'm not even sure they were correct about the power of the statistics anyway.

These are just some of the arguments I had last week, I'd love to hear your contributions to these discussions - a virtual Pittcon brainstorm. I didn't even have space to cover the discussions on the need to improve the speed of printing 3D components for laboratory use or the relative merits of sub-1-μm particles for high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). Maybe another time.

I'm sure you will all be glad to know that my travel home was very uneventful and that for once the flight gods were smiling on me and my seat row was completely empty resulting in a horizontal flight home, and all for the price of an economy ticket. Next year Pittcon will be in Atlanta and will be a direct flight, so I'll have to think up something else to be grumpy about.

Contact author: Incognito



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