From biobanking, electronic pipetting, labeling and analytical instruments, automation is enhancing lab productivity, reliability and accuracy.
Automated operations in the research laboratory are demanded for a number of reasons. An operation that's automated reduces the variation in a previously manual operation—and in the extreme, it can remove the contribution of human error to a process. A prime reason for automation in today's tough economic environment is that automated systems reduce labor costs for the research lab by enabling operations to be precisely performed without human intervention and 24/7 if needed. Newer automation systems can also adapt as processes require by utilizing intelligent software.
Automation systems allow researchers to perform lab operations that they normally would not be capable of performing due to extreme operating conditions or safety concerns. Quality sample management, for example, is a well-known challenge facing life-science investigators, and the need for biobanks is growing as the pharmaceutical industry shifts toward personalized medicine—where there's a need for more usable, well-maintained biospecimen collections (biobanks). These biobanks have been around for more than 50 years, with first-generation systems storing and retrieving samples manually from liquid nitrogen tanks or -20/-80 C freezers. With this type of system, the sample management and information system standards vary between institutions.
Today, institutions are installing newer automated robotic storage systems to comply with new standards and to safeguard against human and machine errors. These systems use innovative hardware and software to monitor, move, secure and process samples without hands-on human intervention.
Holding a manual freezer door open for more than a minute can expose some life science samples to temperatures inside the freezer that are above -60 C depending upon the freezer configuration and sample storage conditions. This can happen numerous times over the lifetime of a sample stored and retrieved manually. Accumulated temperature elevations above this level are believed to damage the integrity of many biospecimens.
“Removing the uncertainty about storage conditions and chain-of-custody ensures that data derived from sample testing will be accurate and reliable,” says Matt Hamilton, VP for Hamilton Storage Technologies, Hopkinton, Mass.
Hamilton Storage recently introduced their third-generation BiOS automated storage system. This ultra-low temperature storage system is designed to store up to 1 million sensitive biological samples in multiple types of hardware, including tubes and microplates. All samples with the BiOS system are stored in -85 C freezer compartments to maintain temperature stability even while sample picking. One- and two-dimensional barcode reading and sample tracking provide chain-of-custody documentation, with software tools to support compliance with the FDA. Multiple redundant backup systems ensure the samples stay at -85 C, even in emergencies.
Beckman Coulter Life Sciences, Fullerton, Calif., recently introduced the latest in its long-running series of Biomek liquid handling workstations—the Biomek 4000. Featuring intelligent liquid handling that adapts as processes require, this device incorporates easy-to-use, icon-driven software and an enhanced work surface with interchangeable tools. The 4000's modular deck configuration allows the work surface to be set up with eight standard positions, which is expandable to 12. New single- and multi-channel 1,000-μL pipetting tools offer higher throughput for assays using volumes greater than 200 μL and up to 1,000 μL. Building a method for the 4000 is simple, with editing features that allow specialized and one-off applications. Most pipetting functions are available through transfer and combine steps, while the flexibility to fine-tune individual steps in previous systems is retained. Pipetting templates and liquid-based editors are standard in the software and make adapting pipetting for any liquid straightforward. An intuitive software interface provides icons for liquid handling, labware movement and control of external devices.
Building blocks for common pipetting tasks, such as liquid transfers or serial dilutions provide a guide through the method editing steps. Pre-written methods for common life science tasks are available as add-ons to the workstation and include PCR Reaction Setup, which automates the reaction setup and primer design for 24- or 96-well format labware. A template method for cell staining applications offers a starting point for several cell-based workflows, and uses a graphical user interface (GUI) that makes setup easy.
Automation systems are usually concerned with increased productivity and faster process operations. INTEGRA Biosciences, Hudson, N.H., has followed this trend and recently announced that it would introduce a new electronic pipette at SLAS 2013 in Orlando, Fla., this month. The company's VIAFLO 384 is a 384-channel handheld electronic pipette that's capable of both 96- and 384-channel pipetting, and hence ideal for users already working with 384-well plates or looking to generate higher productivity from their existing microplate applications. This device adds to the VIAFLO 96, a 96-channel handheld electronic pipette. The VIAFLO 96 is designed to be used just like a standard handheld pipette device with no special skills or training required to operate it. The company also has 4-, 6-, 8- and 12-channel pipetting models with a variety of volume ranges and the unique capability to adjust the pipette tip spacing at the touch of a button. This allows accelerated transfer of samples between tubes, plates and other hardware.
Hamilton Co., Reno, Nev., has also introduced an affordable semi-automated pipetting system. It's Microlab 300 Series Pipettor is the first guided pipetting system that brings the assurance of an automated liquid handling system into the hands of laboratory technicians without complex programming. This device goes beyond programming common pipetting operations like reverse pipetting and aliquoting. It enables technicians to easily create, save and execute complete pipetting operations. This increases the overall reliability of operations through reproducible and traceable methodologies. Beyond meeting GLP/GMP, RoHS, 21 CFR Part 11 and ISO-8655 regulations, this system's user-friendly software allows technicians to adjust their pipetting parameters for enhanced liquid handling of challenging liquids. Through its validated ClickSure tips and Liquid Classes, the Microlab 300 delivers optimal pipetting accuracy by enabling users to fine-tune pipetting speeds and delays for each liquid used. The design is expected to replace the three to four manual electronic pipettes and tip sizes required for pipetting, with one lightweight Disposable Tip Hand Probe and two ClickSure tip sizes. Additionally, the digital volume and speed adjustment capabilities reduce sample preparation time by eliminating manual adjustment as well as pipette exchange steps.
Some companies find that integrating several devices and features into one instrument is a better way to enhance the automation productivity of lab operations. Agilent Technologies, Santa Clara, Calif., for example, recently introduced its Encore Multispan Liquid Handling System, which combines multispan pipetting with the reach of a built-in robotic arm and intelligent software control to deliver higher productivity and throughput. This device includes: 1) a dual, multispan pipetting system comprising two individual banks of multiple pipettes, where each moves independently in multiple axes, operating at a faster speed and doubling the throughput that's currently available; 2) a built-in robotic arm with a span of 21" off-deck with one-touch easy teaching that enables end-to-end workflow integrations with increased range and flexibility; and 3) an enhanced software package that includes a 3D simulator, providing researchers with the ability to setup, visualize and optimize process protocols remotely and offline prior to running their experiments. The combination of these capabilities provides researchers with the ability to easily automate complete workflows for a range of applications, including high-throughput screening, ELISA, ADME/TOX, compound management and sample preparation workflows for genomics and proteomics.
TTP LabTech, Cambridge, UK, has manufactured its mosquito portfolio of automated low-volume liquid handling systems for several years. These systems have fast dispense rates, zero cross-contamination capabilities and enhanced precision—irrespective of liquid viscosity or environmental conditions—even when handling volumes as low as 25 nL. The two latest versions of this liquid handling system are the mosquito HV and mosquito X1. The HV bridges the gap between nanoliter and microliter liquid handling, ensuring rapid and accurate dispensing of liquid volumes from 0.5 to 5 μL, regardless of viscosity. This is especially useful for PCR operations, where assay miniaturization results in significant cost savings. The HV's disposable micropipettes ensure zero cross-contamination, again vital in PCR assays.
The mosquito X1 is useful for fully automated screening operation on a larger scale, ensuring accurate and precise liquid handling throughout the 25 nL to 1.2 μL range. This system is easily integrated into larger screening systems for precision sampling of any individual well in any plate, such as the BioFocus system for fully automated nanoliter hit-picking. Working with Thermo Fisher Scientific's RapidStak plate stacker, this system allows selected hit wells to be seamlessly transferred using the X1 from a variety of screening plates directly to the secondary screening phase, without the need for further dilution. Looking to miniaturize all parts of the workflow, researchers at TTP developed the dragonfly automated non-contact screen optimizer, which regulates the balance of multiple parameters fundamental to the success of any subsequent screening program. Novel positive displacement pipetting technology ensures robust, repeatable and reliable results capable of handling a range of viscosities.
Analytical instruments are not to be left off the automation list either. Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, Columbia, Md., for example, recently partnered with Perfinity Biosciences, the West Lafayette, Ind.-spin-off from Purdue Univ., to create the Integrated Digestion Platform (IDP), which automates key proteomics workflow steps to significantly reduce sample preparation times and enhance reproducibility. Typical 18-hr tryptic digestions for reverse-phase HPLC and mass spectrometry detection are reduced to 30 min or less.
While many of the devices noted earlier include the integration of multiple operations for automating the lab, some equipment manufacturers work to automate single operations to help researchers increase their lab productivity. Hudson Robotics, Springfield, N.J., for example, recently introduced a high-speed pH measuring workcell. This device reduces the time required to accurately measure the pH of 96 samples in a 96-well microplate from several hours to under 6 min with 0.1 accuracy. The Rapid_pH provides this information without the delays and inaccuracies inherent in electrode-based measurements.
Hudson also recently announced the introduction of a new, high-speed automated print and apply barcode labeler for microplates. The PA1000 has the unique ability to be operated manually or with a robotic arm. Even when operating under fully automated operation, the device allows the user to pause, label on an individual plate, and then continue with the automated run. The PA1000 prints multiple format barcode labels on any SBS footprint microplate. It prints 1D, 2D and/or human-readable text on 1, 2 or all 4 sides of a plate, and it's easy-to-use software allows for anyone to set up a run. Labels are applied with +/-0.020" precision and users can load up to 420 microplates per run.