As researchers consider whether or not to automate processes in their labs, what to buy and when to buy become primary concerns.
Automating processes makes life easier in a lab, but deciding what to buy and when creates a challenge. “A lab might have a proposal put forth that automates today’s assay, but next year the same lab could be on to the next big thing,” says Jason Greene, liquid handling product manager at BioTek Instruments in Winooski, Vt. “So customers want products that can be reconfigured.”
At the same time, customers want more-affordable products that work easily. That poses a tricky goal: Lab automation solutions must work easily today and handle other assays in the future—all for a lower price.
Handling the Liquids
Most assays in drug discovery and development require liquid handling. To meet a variety of needs, Hamilton Robotics in Bonaduz, Switzerland, developed its STAR line. “These differ in required work space and throughput,” says Carsten Etzold, PhD, Hamilton’s director of pharma and biotech. For example, the STAR line robotic liquid handlers can accommodate 25, 45, or 55 microplates. “The platforms can be used as standalone units or in integrated systems,” says Etzold. Moreover, pipetting in Hamilton’s STAR line works with volume ranges from as little as 10 nanoliters—when using a special head—to as much as 5 milliliters. To extend flexibility even more, Hamilton offers about 4,000 standard configurations, plus customized, complete solutions in drug discovery, genomics, proteomics, cell culture, and more.
Many customers want to connect a liquid handler with third-party instruments. As a result, says Etzold, “We have integrated our STAR liquid handlers with more than 50 different third-party devices. Furthermore, our software not only drives our liquid-handling robot, but it also acts as process management software to control processes containing numerous up and downstream devices.”
Other companies in the liquid handling business also forge relationships with other vendors. “We try to partner with as many automation partners as we can,” says Greene of BioTek. “It really benefits us all.”
Developing the best solutions depends on customer feedback. With BioTek’s EL406 Combination Microplate Washer Dispenser, for instance, Greene says, “We looked at what products our customers liked the most, and then asked what we could do with these.” The answers triggered a combination of BioTek’s ELx405 Washer with a three-reagent dispenser. “The EL406 is a full plate washer for 96- and 384-well microplates,” says Greene, “plus it includes two types of reagent-dispensing technologies: peristaltic pump and syringe drive.”
PerkinElmer in Waltham, Mass., also provides liquid-handling products. “We provide solutions that save money in terms of reagents,” says Michael Kealy, business manager for the automated liquid handling business at PerkinElmer Life and Analytical Sciences. He adds that the JANUS workstation provides “a family of dispense heads that can be automatically switched in a single sequence of pipetting. You can also add our nanohead for very small volumes.” In addition, PerkinElmer offers serial-dilution tools that dispense into 96- or 384-well plates.
Processing the Samples
Beyond moving liquids, researchers worry about sample quality. “Researchers want more from high-throughput screening,” says David Harding, sales and marketing director at RTS Life Science in Manchester, United Kingdom, “but they also want quality control during the entire process to make sure that they are screening what they think they are screening.”
RTS provides several products that enhance quality control. For example, the RTS Automated Blood Fractionation systems can divide blood samples into plasma/serum, buffy coat, and red blood cells, processing up to 500 tubes a day. “It cuts the cost of biobanking and providing DNA to researchers,” says Harding.
RTS also developed its SmaRTStore, which has a relatively small footprint but holds 360,000 samples. It can store plates, tubes, and vials in the same unit. In the past, says Harding, only large pharmaceutical companies could afford sophisticated storage systems. Now, he sees research institutes and biotechnology companies buying the SmaRTStore because of its reduced size and price, plus the potential to incorporate SmaRTStore with external automation.
Qiagen in Hilden, Germany, also makes products that simplify sample preparation. The QIAcube, for instance, processes as many as a dozen samples in spin-column protocols that purify DNA, RNA, and proteins. “This automates a process that was always there, and makes the switch from a manual to an automated process convenient and easy,” says Wolfgang Leibinger, PhD, global business director of automated solutions at Qiagen.
In addition, Qiagen’s QIAsymphony SP combines Qiagen’s magnetic-particle chemistry with purification protocols for DNA, RNA, and proteins—handling up to 96 samples at once. “This system has so many process-safety features built in that it’s hard to do anything wrong,” says Leibinger. For example, the QIAsymphony SP includes a touch screen, reagent cartridges, and a bar-code reader. “You are guided through steps like it was an ATM,” says Leibinger. “I could give you an hour of training and you could run samples.”
Beyond preparing plates, researchers must also assess what’s in them. Consequently, BioTek developed its Synergy 4 Multi-Mode Microplate Reader with hybrid technology. This reader includes both filter-based and monochromator-based detection. “It covers virtually every wavelength under the sun without any sacrifice in performance,” Greene says.
Parts to Systems
In some cases, companies offer scalable systems that extend basic liquid handling into fully automated systems. For example, Caliper Life Sciences in Hopkinton, Mass., offers its Staccato series of systems, which consists of Caliper’s Zephyr or Sciclone liquid handlers, Twister II robots, and iLinkPro scheduling software on a family of modular building-block tables called iBLOX. “One of the biggest challenges in complex systems is often scheduling, making all the instruments operate in the most time-efficient manor to achieve maximum throughput,” says Kevin Keras, business unit manager for the company’s automation, consulting, engineering, and services (ACES) integration unit.
Many labs already have some automated instruments. So last year, Caliper’s ACES team introduced the Ensemble and Reprise integrated systems. An Ensemble system can consist of any vendor’s liquid handler, robot, or scheduling software, which Keras says, “results in the customer’s definition of best-in-class.” A Reprise system, on the other hand, enables scientists to build automated systems using instruments that they already own. Keras calls this “a growing trend due to numerous mergers, acquisitions, and lab consolidations.” He adds, “This unique suite of services provides customers with the ability to choose the best solution for their labs and tap our 25 plus years of integration expertise.”
Other companies also aim at complete systems. “The biggest challenge today from a customer’s standpoint is finding a complete solution,” says Kealy. “They’re looking to go from sample to results.” As an example of such a product, Kealy mentions the cell::explorer, which he calls “a complete solution for high-content screening.”
In addition, PerkinElmer developed its OnPoint Integration Solution services to help customers create specialized solutions. “Here we build a solution for a specific customer,” Kealy says. “We also back these up with OneSource, which provides managed maintenance, multi-vendor service plans, and so on.”
Putting together automated systems also requires software, and that’s the specialty of Advanced Chemistry Development (ACD/Labs) in Toronto, Canada. “The major challenge in software is consistency and portability of information,” says Mark Bayliss, ACD/Labs’ vice president and chief technical officer. Much of the problem comes from the format of the data, because vendors often use company-specific encoding.
That’s where the ACD/Automation Server can help. This software can pick up a file, move it, and read it. “Without destroying or corrupting the original data files,” says Bayliss, “our software creates output that can be picked up by another system.” For the most part, ACD/Labs focuses on analytical spectroscopy, such as infrared and nuclear magnetic resonance.
Even ACD/Labs’ software cannot read every format. “We have one of the largest lists of instruments supported,” says Bayliss, “but there are things that even we don’t read.” Nonetheless, the Automation Server can be customized.
Making the Move to Automate
The level of automation stills depends on dollars, especially among academic researchers. “For my younger colleagues,” says Thomas Cheatham, III, PhD, assistant professor of pharmaceutics and pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Utah at Salt Lake City, “it is typically a matter of cost. They need to build up basic infrastructure before they can move into automation.”
In addition, updating automation requires careful decisions. Rathnam Chaguturu, PhD, director of the high-throughput screening laboratory at University of Kansas in Lawrence, decides to update his automation devices “when I see a meaningful and critical improvement to the equipment or technology that we use in the laboratory.” In selecting specific products, Chaguturu considers several factors. First, the product must meet his lab’s current and expected future needs. Moreover, he only wants to purchase products that are “proven to be effective.” He adds, “I would not buy the newest toy that comes into the market.”
Greene at BioTek suggests that wise researchers “begin their automation with baby steps.” He recommends: “Find the rate-limiting step in your assay, and start there.” Like many other companies, BioTek helps customers select the best products for their needs.
With dropping prices and lots advice, scientists at most levels can find some way to simply lab life with automation.
This article was published in Bioscience Technology magazine: November, 2008, pp. 19-23.
Filed Under: Drug Discovery