How To Buy A Flow Cytometer – What You Need To Evaluate From A To Z

So you have the money to buy a flow cytometer. Is it a sorter? Or perhaps a spectral analyzer? No wait, maybe an imaging mass cytometer?  Big or small?  What to choose?  How to choose?  More importantly, once you sign the contract to purchase the instrument, you don’t want to be struck with buyers remorse

It is indeed a big decision and we have the best advice for you to consider before making the purchase. Let’s discuss some of the steps you should take to prevent buyers remorse and ensure you are getting the best instrument for your needs. 

Do Your Homework Before Buying A Flow Cytometer

When someone asks me what is the best instrument that they should purchase, I immediately ask them the intended use of the instrument. The instrument usage is the first critical step to narrowing down your choices. Things that need to be considered besides the  price, of course, include instrument size, any special requirements (HVAC can be a big one) the system may have. The last, but by no means the least, is the capabilities of the instruments under consideration. 

Perhaps you have an instrument and want a second one. That just makes things easy, and you can skip to negotiation. Otherwise, you should generate a list of each of the instruments you would be considering, why it is  attractive to you, and find out the price, as well as the price of any addons and the service contract costs. 

Ask Your Network

Homework completed! Now is the time to approach your network, find out who has which flow cytometer in their laboratory and are willing to give you honest feedback. Don’t neglect to discuss the service after the sale. Ask relevant questions such as:

 How long does it take for a service engineer to get to your facility if a repair is needed? 

What sort of other support can the vendor provide you?

How easy is the software to use? 

What are the main problems that arise? 

If  you don’t have a network, you can reach out to the Purdue listserv. You would get a diverse group of opinions there on different instruments. In fact, a good first step would be to search the archives and see what people have said about the instrument in question. 

Seeking to build a network? Consider joining the Expert Cytometry’s Mastery Class

The Private Facebook group is a wealth of resources and information. Scientists worldwide are willing to share their experiences with you. 

Last but not least, you can always take to Twitter or Linkedin to ask your question.  

Arrange For A Test Drive Of Your Flow Cytometer

You wouldn’t buy a car before taking it for a test drive, would you? Why should your instrument purchase be treated any less carefully? In the best case, you can get the vendors to bring the instruments on site. So you would be working at a facility where you are aware of  everything. Second best case is if there is one nearby that you can go visit for a day or two. Since this is a big time commitment for everyone, do this for the final selected list of flow cytometer. Make sure to give yourself enough time to arrange the demo so that you can secure samples from your users to compare to your current instruments. 

So what do you want to do in this test drive? Well, put the flow cytometer through its paces. There is always some marketing hype about a given instrument, so test it out as ruthlessly as you can.  Here is where having a good set of beads and samples is ideal. I have a range of beads to play with in my refrigerator. Take the 8 peak headset from Spherotech for example, which are great for looking at the range of sensitivity of the detectors. Can you see all 8 beads on scale when you run the beads? 

Another bead set I like to play with is the Quantum™Simply Cellular® beads from Bangs Laboratories.  These beads have four different levels of Fc-specific capture antibody. This allows one to use them with any fluorochrome.  Another great way is to check the linearity of the system. Don’t forget the peak 2 beads, which can be used to determine the sensitivity of the detectors as has been discussed previously.  

I also like to use chicken erythrocytes stained with various nuclear dyes. We know the genome size is 2.5 picograms, and it is a good way to set up a cell cycle experiment. This will let you know how linear the system is and how much spread you see in the system. 

Next comes the challenge to compare samples run on your current instruments versus the same samples run on the new machine. 

Can you identify the same populations?  

Is there a good resolution of the peaks? 

How does the compensation perform? 

The more of these experiments that you can perform, the better off you’ll be when it comes to making the final decision. 

Putting It All Together

Now comes the hard part, the negotiation to purchase the instrument you have chosen. You need to sit down and weigh all the pros and cons of the different machines. How did they perform in your hands?  What does the after the sale support look like? How expensive is the service contract?  

Concluding Remarks

When you are talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, you really don’t want to have buyers remorse. Looking at things objectively will lead you to the flow cytometer that will serve your community. Remember, each instrument has its tradeoffs and the decision is what is critical for you and your users versus what is not so important. At the end of the day, when you get that new instrument, savor it for a bit. This is the time for you to enjoy the machine, getting to know it’s quirks and such. And just like a new car, you want to drive it yourself for a while before letting someone else behind the wheel, or in this case the SIP.

To learn more about important control measures for your flow cytometry lab, and to get access to all of our advanced materials including 20 training videos, presentations, workbooks, and private group membership, get on the Flow Cytometry Mastery Class wait list.

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Tim Bushnell, PhD
Tim Bushnell, PhD

Tim Bushnell holds a PhD in Biology from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He is a co-founder of—and didactic mind behind—ExCyte, the world’s leading flow cytometry training company, which organization boasts a veritable library of in-the-lab resources on sequencing, microscopy, and related topics in the life sciences.

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