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Integration, Robotics, and Automation

By Robert M. Frederickson

March 14, 2006 | The integration of instruments and technology is a key concept driving the development of advanced laboratory automation. Caliper Life Sciences recently announced its acquisition of Xenogen, a maker of imaging instruments and software. Caliper’s expertise lies in microfluidic technology and automation, and the acquisition provides imaging technology critical for in vitro and in vivo analyses in drug discovery and biomarker research.

Late last year, when Caliper acquired NovaScreen BioSciences, a life science services company based in Hanover, Md., it took another step towards integration, combining NovaScreen’s screening, profiling, and assay development services with its own LabChip and liquid-handling technology. The ultimate aim for all providers of automated instrumentation for drug discovery is to provide a “one-stop shop” for drug developers, through the development of fully integrated systems that incorporate biological assays, instrumentation, software, and even sample and reagent storage and handling.

For example, in January, NovaScreen launched the KinaseAdvisor screening panel of 48 protein kinase assays, which is designed for use on the Caliper LabChip 3000 platform, a drug discovery system that miniaturizes, integrates, and automates enzymatic and cell-based assays. As 75 percent of the top 15 pharmaceutical companies are already using Caliper systems in their screening efforts, the new assay should be accessible for integration by many top drug developers. Another advantage of integration is a reduced need for technical staff, as more aspects of biological screening are automated and coordinated, allowing for much greater “walk away” time for operators of the systems.

Lab Feng Shui
A further advantage of integration is the optimization of limited laboratory space. In January, Thermo Electron launched the HCS WorkCell, a high-content screening system with a small “footprint.” The use of fluorescent microscopy has given rise to screening tools based on high-resolution imaging of multiple targets within a cell. These systems present information on multiple spatial and temporal events in cells and offer significant advantages over fluorescent plate readers used in conventional cell-based assays because they measure multiple signals from individual cells within a well as opposed to a single signal per well. A typical system consists of imaging instrumentation, fluorescent reagents, probes, and software and can be fully automated using multiwell and robotic sampling systems. This approach is more efficient for validation of cellular targets and predictive toxicology and lead optimization.

The HCS WorkCell is characterized by vertical integration — hence the small footprint — so as to deliver a compact automated system that is easy to relocate and frees up lab floor space. Components are essentially stacked as opposed to arranged horizontally, maximizing valuable bench space. Thermo is marketing the system as ideal for cell-based analysis for applications such as stem cell research, cell growth, toxicity assays, and siRNA technology. The HCS WorkCell operates with Thermo’s Orchestrator software, a workflow optimization tool that can connect the flow of information from automation scheduling software to a LIMS database.

More sophisticated robotics are also increasingly being integrated into automated systems. Beckman Coulter is a provider of automated and integrated laboratory systems, focused primarily on the Biomek line of liquid handlers. Early this year, Beckman Coulter announced the selection of the Motoman (a Yaskawa company) industrial robot arm for integration with the company’s automated liquid-handling products, providing drug discovery/screening and sample prep customers with an industrialized option for ultra-high throughput.

Beckman Coulter’s SAGIAN automated core system incorporated a Biomek workstation and is designed to improve productivity in high-throughput screening labs by simplifying and standardizing complex robotic operations. Its SAMI software offers a menu of “plug-and-play” systems that can be reconfigured for new technology and assays. The Motoman robot will join Beckman Coulter’s own Orca and Robotic Transport (BRT) robotics to give customers a choice of automation scalability. The Motoman robot, rail setup, and software controls will be optimized for use with Biomek FX or NX automated liquid-handling systems and integrated solutions.

E-mail Robert M. Frederickson at

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