In today’s world of lab automation seemingly everything keeps getting smaller. Even some big governments push for tiny processes. In 2005, for example, the United Kingdom’s Department of Trade and Industry put up part of the funding for The Dolomite Centre, touted as the world’s first microfluidic-application center. With scientists from academia, forensic science, medicine, and the pharmaceutical business, this center combines microfabrication and microfluidics to help scientists make anything from a single device to a complete system. That reveals one trend in lab automation: working together to miniaturize instruments, or at least components of them.
The breadth of that trend appears in the Association for Laboratory Automation’s list of finalists for its 2007 innovation award. Out of nine finalists, five of them work on miniaturization. One of those finalists, Jianghong Rao of the molecular imaging program at Stanford University, developed quantum dot–based nanosensors as imaging probes, which can be aimed at specific targets. His microscopic fluorescent semiconductors provide one key advance over traditional quantum dots: Rao’s illuminate themselves.
Most any lab process involves liquids at some stage, and miniaturization requires smaller channels. This leads to microfluidics, and even nanofluidics. Carbon nanotubes can now be used to “plumb” the processes of reactions. Although not always nano in scale, microscopic tubes now enhance traditional processes, such as chromatography. As an example, Nanostream in Pasadena, Calif, developed micro parallel liquid chromatography. This technology lets a scientist perform chromatographic analysis on many compounds, all at the same time. In addition, Agilent in Santa Clara, Calif., offers microfluidics-based HPLC-Chip/MS technology that uses nanoflow HPLC columns. This system can analyze small or extremely dilute samples.
Miniaturization makes it difficult to handle the miniscule volumes needed in automated systems. Consequently, many companies focus on this area. In Dublin, Ireland, Deera Fluidics developed the Equator HTS pipetting system, which precisely delivers small volumes to wells. Likewise, Velocity in Meno Park, Calif., created 10-microliter pipette tips that work with its automated liquid-handling systems. With the company’s Bravo system, for example, these tips can deliver volumes ranging from 100 nanoliters to 200 microliters, and it works with 96-, 384-, and 1,536-well plates.
Ever since the Human Genome Project, “automation” makes many scientists think of gene sequencing, where PCR is king. This process can also be miniaturized to run smaller samples. Scientists at Trinity College in Dublin used Deera Fluidics Equator HTS pipetting system to run real-time PCR with small samples, even down to 1.25 microliters.
Other companies also apply miniaturization to gene technology. In Branford, Conn., 454 Life Sciences combined nanotechnology and microfluidics to make an extremely fast gene-sequencing instrument.
In the end, smaller sample sizes turn particularly appealing with expensive or hard-to-get materials. Perhaps most important of all, the trend to shrink can also improve sensitivity of automated assays. Nanosphere in Northbrook, Ill., uses gold nanoprobes to target nucleic acids and proteins, which, it claims, can pick out proteins in the femtogram per milliliter range. Now that’s a great collection of reasons to get small.
About the Author
Mike May, PhD, is a publishing consultant for science and technology based in Minnesota..
This article was published in Drug Discovery & Development magazine: Vol. 10, No. 1, January, 2007, p. 12.
Filed Under: Drug Discovery