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No longer just for manufacturing and Big Pharma research, automation gear is coming into small labs.


January 15, 2005 | More than a century after the coining of the term "Industrial Revolution" to describe the adoption of new technologies to produce more at a higher cadence, assembly lines and mechanized equipment are up and running in life science laboratories. Although mostly used for manufacturing and pharmaceutical research, automated devices are becoming increasingly common in academia and small labs. Miniaturization is also playing a role, with microfluidic chips that can perform assays and separations.

"Automation technology is actually ... a philosophy of looking at processes and how to do things differently toward helping scientists move faster, more easily," says Peter Grandsard, president of the Association for Laboratory Automation and associate director of research and automation technologies at Amgen.

At first, automation meant integrating robotics into pharmaceutical research, says Steve Hamilton, who helped launch the pharma automation age while working at Eli Lilly. More than two decades later, however, "there's a growing realization that automation is about more than just robotics," says Hamilton, a board member at the Association for Laboratory Automation. "It's really about all types of technology to improve productivity, but also to improve knowledge and decision making."

Liquid Dreams a Reality 
Pipetting was among the first manual tasks to go automatic. Ramping up from petri dishes and 6- and 12-well plates, researchers needed a way to circumvent the tedious task of pipetting liquids and cells into microplates of 96, 384, and 1,536 wells. Homemade innovations such as multiple-tip pipettes eased pipetting efforts early on. Now, higher throughput is necessitating automated liquid handlers, which are often the first automated device researchers purchase.

"Often times, liquid handlers are considered trivial, but they're actually a very needy unit operation," Grandsard says. "It's a standard building block in the workflow of the lab."

Liquid handlers can do the job of any lab technician armed with a pipette. The automated devices transfer liquids from a reservoir to a plate and from one plate to another, while replicating the columns and rows of the original plate. Also helping to keep track of the thousands of wells and hundreds of plates are identification systems, such as bar-code readers that scan each plate and relay the information to a database. Many companies offer liquid handlers with changeable probe heads to save labs from having to purchase a new device if their needs change.

Also stretching the flexibility of liquid handlers are those that allow researchers to use both fixed and disposable pipette tips. Along with that trend, companies have made advances in washing techniques to prevent contamination, which is especially important with genomics protocols.

For example, Protedyne's liquid handlers boast a system that washes the tips "offline like a car wash," says product manager Mike Catalano. "The system takes the tips, ejects into a car on the wash, which goes through three washing stations and a drying station. You reduce your overhead time because the pipettor doesn't have to spend time washing."

Plate stackers and feeders free researchers to focus on science. The larger plate stackers can hold enough plates such that the liquid handler can continue to process plates overnight.

Such walk-away automation has also extended to a great many once-tedious protocols. Liquid handlers can be adjusted to perform nucleic acid extractions, polymerase chain reaction preparation, and magnetic separations. An imager attached to the system can capture the results, which are then fed to a personal computer for analysis.

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Accessing that data can be automated with a Web-based laboratory information management system (LIMS), such as LabVantage's Sapphire. "Users can access the LIMS from anywhere, anytime. That includes employees both in the lab and remote - but also customers accessing the system to submit jobs and to check results," says LabVantage marketing communications manager Terry Hermann. Sapphire integrates with robotic systems, analytical devices, and lab instruments.

Shrink and Save 
Miniaturization has spawned an entire industry dedicated to chips that can perform an array of assays, separations, and other protocols using nucleic acids, proteins, and cells. At the foundation of such lab chips are the tiny capillaries that are central to microfluidic technology. Applying a voltage across the chip encourages samples and reagents to move through the capillaries, thus driving the reaction. Some companies are using compact discs that rely on centrifugal force rather than voltage; Gyros' Gyrolab Bioaffy CD-based proteomics lab is a good example.

"Microfluidic chips enable higher-quality information to be collected on biochemical, enzymatic, and cell-based assays," says Kevin Hrusovsky, CEO of Caliper Life Sciences. In addition to chips designed for assays and protocols, Caliper also provides an automated device, the LabChip 3000, which transfers samples from microplates into the chips, dispenses reagents, and reads the results. Using the company's plate stacker with a 60-plate capacity, the LabChip 3000 can run for about 16 hours without human intervention, Hrusovsky says.

Automation is pushing the amount of data that can be generated. In the next phase of development, Hamilton says, there will be "less emphasis on just cranking out more numbers and more emphasis on taking that wealth of data and making sense of it."

By Laura Lane Laura Lane is a San Francisco-based science writer who covers tools and technologies of the life science lab. 

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