The Changing Market for Research Antibodies

We’ve long known that scientific customers can exhibit remarkable brand loyalty. When we ask what made you choose this product over another, the answer is consistently “It’s what has worked for me in the past” or “It was recommended to me by a colleague.” Such was the case when we last explored the antibody market in 2012. We asked respondents “How IMPORTANT are the following considerations when evaluating whether to purchase antibodies from [your primary supplier] before making a purchase decision (i.e., information search stage)?” In 2012, “Previous experience with the brand” and “colleague/coworker’s recommendations” were each cited by respondents as highly important and were the #1 and #2 selections overall. This year the picture has changed and our latest report The 2017 Market for Research Antibodies: Keys to Success for Commercial Suppliers highlights some of the key trends.

The Importance of Validation

New factors have changed how customers make purchase decisions. Not even on the horizon in 2012, antibody validation documentation now rivals previous brand experience as the most important factor driving a decision. Previous experience with the brand was still extremely important but it’s clear that antibody customers’ brand loyalty is not unconditional – they want to see how their suppliers validate their products.

The driving force behind our research is our online panel of scientists who have agreed to participate in our research. We formed The Science Advisory Board in 1997 and have attracted the participation of scientists from every region, market segment, and scientific discipline. They provide us with quantitative data in our surveys but we also give them a platform to speak out on issues that affect their work. Antibody validation proved to be a hot topic and their unfiltered comments are enlightening.

On the issue of validation one researcher told us:

“The antibodies that are sold must be tested on specificity of target binding – it just must not be possible to buy an antibody and then having to check if it REALLY is specific! I did this for instance for the antibody against transcription factor ThPok (that is still being sold at this moment!) – it is NOT specific to the antigen. If I had not checked I would have published something based on the assumption that I am really seeing ThPok expression (which it wasn’t). The companies NEED and HAVE to do this.”

Another scientists points to the need for suppliers to disclose underlying manufacturing processes that some companies might consider trade secrets:

“Don’t buy antibodies where manufacturers do not disclose or under-characterize immunizing agent. Understanding how the specificity is determined and ability to reproduce this. Reproducible immunostaining is very important, and characterization and use of the most specific antibodies possible will lead to best publication and research results.”

One scientists puts the burden of validation squarely on the shoulders of industry:

“The problem is that it is unlikely that it would be an affordable practice for most researchers that are grant funded as they are short on time and money to validate, therefore, the best option is for the antibodies to come pre-validated for specific applications.”

The Growing Importance of Online Reviews

In 2017, online reviews of antibody performance have “equal weight” compared to information provided on supplier websites. And antibody portals are more important than product promotions. Dozens of such online resources now exist as scientists share information on their experiences with specific antibodies and rate their performance. The increasing use of such websites may raise awareness of newer, better performing antibodies which might have been missed by a scientist who relies primarily on recommendations from a colleague or literature citations.

Again, the scientists who responded to our survey had a lot to say on the issue. One wrote:

“I believe that researchers can use databases to show their results that are outside of the antibody company’s direct control. One such database that I use to help prioritize antibodies is the citeab website. This website allows me to view actual publications to each P/N for the database. I believe that this database would also help by showing individuals which antibodies provided by some of the bigger companies (e.g. Abcam, Sigma, etc.) are actually manufactured by smaller companies (i.e. Everest) and then remarked and resold.”

Not all respondents seem to be aware of the many online resources that do exist:

“We need a non-biased database with actual investigator derived data that includes results, methodology and supplier/target information to demonstrate that an Ab does/does not work. Many times we have bought Abs that the supplier claims will work in a particular application or recognize a single form of a protein to find that this is not true!”

“{There is a need for} an open unbiased process to discuss/resolve conflicting data (e.g. when a big lab publishes with an antibody and subsequent validation attempts show that the antibody does not work as advertised, many scientists would not dare to make such controversial results public.”

“There needs to be a repository of data that comes back from the lab bench with experimental results and protocol used. This is truly the only way to effectively characterize antibodies. It is too costly for manufacturers to validate antibodies in all applications and sample types. Yes, manufacturers must do some basic validation to ensure product performance, but we will go further faster with crowd-sourced validation. It is akin to agile methodology in product development. It is the most effective way to iterate on quality.”

Some scientists thinks societies and publishers must play a role:

“Antibodies need to clearly state species, clonally, defined epitope and publishers must require supplier and catalogue numbers as well as lot numbers so a repeat experiment can be undertaken using exactly the same reagents.”

“Thorough methodologies including, antibody catalogue and lot numbers, need to be published in journals. Researchers on journal boards need to demand that their journals allow sufficient space within manuscript word limits to accommodate this and reviewers should demand full images of the antibody validation checks (e.g. uncropped western lanes) to be included in the manuscripts. However, suppliers need to understand that researchers must do this because THE ANTIBODY PRODUCERS AND SUPPLIERS are selling products that are not fit for purpose. 80% of the problem of irreproducibility is caused by the supplier and THEY must change THEIR practice to ensure that good antibodies are actually available in the first place rather than rely on the buyer to pay for the supplier’s incompetence.”

Clearly antibody suppliers and their customers must work together to solve this problem and restore trust in the market. The 2017 Market for Research Antibodies: Keys to Success for Commercial Suppliers is a valuable resource for understanding the various criteria laboratories use to choose their antibodies suppliers, the critical touchpoints in the purchasing process and how to build brand loyalty based on trust.