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Feature Articles : Mar 1, 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 5)

Review: LabAuto Product Introductions

Hardware and Software Solutions Intended to Increase Efficiency in Biotechnology Research
  • Ilene Schneider

When times get tough, manufacturers of laboratory automation equipment rely on out-of-the-box thinking to provide greater economy and efficiency for life scientists.  “LabAutomation,” held in Palm Springs the last week in January, showcased more than 4,000 hardware and software advances, including open architecture, to make various systems compatible with one another, modularity that allows for growth and change as needed, innovation that decreases sample and reagent volumes, and increased communication between scientists.

à Among the tool companies highlighting new products at “LabAuto” was Agilent Technologies. “Agilent’s broad portfolio is designed for plug-and-play solutions that integrate equipment from the competition via open architecture, enabling scientists to focus on science, rather than manual tasks that create significant inefficiencies in the lab,” said Rob Nail, GM of Agilent Automation Solutions (formerly Velocity11). The company’s Direct Drive Robot incorporates a fourth axis for wrist motion, an integrated teaching button, the ability to stop on unintended contact, and a compact and flexible small footprint. VWorks Automation Control Software runs Agilent and third-party software and includes a hit-picking wizard.

à Everybody in the lab can be a power user with the Intellectual Scheduler for the POD™ 810 system, which assembles assay-ready plates on demand, according to Jean Shieh, product manager at Labcyte. The drag-and-drop software-based scheduler is easy to learn, use, and change, she added. Labcyte also introduced the Deerac Q, a benchtop liquid-handling system incorporating both disposable tip transfer for DNA samples and noncontact PCR reagent dispensing for low-volume assays. The company’s acoustic droplet ejection technology uses sound to move liquids.

à Art Robbins Instruments unveiled the Gryphon, a personal-sized version of the company’s Phoenix liquid-handling system, explained John Clemente, East Coast sales manager. Using a combination of interchangeable multiple syringe heads, pipette tip heads, and noncontact dispensers, the Gryphon minimizes the amount of reagent volume needed and performs a variety of microtiter plate assays.

à BMG Labtech launched its PHERAstar FS HTS microplate reader incorporating tandem technology that uses highly sensitive, filter-based detection in all modes, explained E.J. Dell, Ph.D., business development and applications scientist.  PHERAstar FS has an ultrafast UV/Vis spectrometer for absorbance, a dedicated UV-laser for all TR-FRET-based assays, top and bottom reading for cell-based assays, and on-board reagent injectors that measure and read at the same time for calcium assays and cell membrane assays, Dr. Dell reported. 

à VaryScreen™ I from Hudson Control Group is a multiassay screening and development system that enables investigators to rapidly switch assays, including AlphaScreen, luminescence, FRET, ELISA, fluorescence polarization, and UV/Vis absorbance.  “Appealing to investigators who want to handle a greater number of assays rather than dedicating a system to one type, it allows the user to conduct many assay types on a single workcell and model changes within assays, which is critical to validating assays in real time,” said Phil Farrelly, president.

à MDS Analytical Technologies introduced six- and two-channel versions of the SpectraMax® L multiple photomultiplier-based platform for microplate luminometers to screen small molecules for biological activity and investigate protein-protein interactions. 

Increasing throughput with additional PMT tubes and injectors, the systems can perform bioluminescence resonance energy transfer assays for proteomics studies. According to company president Andy Boorn, small biotech and pharmaceutical companies now have a cost-effective approach to medium-throughput, Aequorin-based GPCR, and luciferase-based reporter gene screening, and large pharmaceutical companies get to validate and optimize assays before large-scale screening.

à Parallume™ optical-encoding technology from Parallel Synthesis Technologies is based on two to six different rare earth elements that emit at six discrete and resolvable colors when excited at a single wavelength. “Displaying less spectral overlap than quantum dots or organic dyes, it is possible to measure the relative fluorescent intensity of these emitters accurately, allowing the resolution of a large number of ratiometric optical codes or optical signatures,” said Robert Haushalter, Ph.D., president and founder. Parallel has developed many nucleic acid and protein-detection chemistries and protocols for the beads.

à Using fluorescence-activated cell sorting, Celula enables sorting and recovery of small populations of cells, operating anywhere from 1,000 to 300,000 cells in 5- to 50-microliter total volume. The cartridge-based, software-driven benchtop sorter for individual labs can be used simply by loading the cells and snapping the lid, explained Andy Katz, Ph.D., vp, CBO, and cofounder of Celula, who said that the instrument provides high-purity, multiparameter selection for stem cells, GFP cells, and translational research.

à Cisbio Bioassays exhibited its homogeneous time-resolved fluorescence (HTRF®), which Glenn Knapik, GM, Cisbio US, described as “a highly sensitive, robust technology for the detection of molecular interactions of proteins in vitro.” The technology is used for primary and secondary screening phases of drug development. HTplex technology detects more than one analyte in a well or more than one molecule in a sample.

à Boreal Genomics offers electrophoretic technology to extract samples that are contaminated or highly dilute, reported Andre Marziali, CSO. “It’s better at rejecting contaminants than beads, because it uses physical, as opposed to chemical, methods.” The Aurora nucleic acid platform is capable of extraction and concentration of nucleic acids from 1 mL of sample in five minutes, with single nucleotide resolution, he said. The SCODA platform purifies DNA and RNA from up to 5 mL of sample even in the presence of solid materials.

à CyBio offers exchangeable multichannel pipetting heads for precision, versatility, and future upgradeability into the CyBi® WellFlex and CyBi WellFlex vario liquid-handling systems. The Flex Head one- and eight-channel pipetting tool offers serial dilutions or hit picking, enabling automation of a broad spectrum of applications instead of changing the whole system, according to Patricia Ahrweiler, sales representative.

à The ExpressHT™ Ultra HPLC system from Eksigent Technologies provides short cycle times and high throughput for LC/MS studies of pharmacokinetics and drug metabolism, in the words of Don Arnold, Ph.D., founder and vp. Using columns with diameters of 1 mm or smaller, the system uses 95% less solvent per analysis than traditional HPLC systems, he said.  With cycle times as short as 60 seconds, the ExpressHT-Ultra can run 96-well sample plates overnight.

à Fluxion Biosciences uses pneumatic pumping technology to replace liquid handling, providing accuracy, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness, said Mark Atlas, director of sales.  The company’s BioFlux 200 system incorporates the proprietary microfluidic design for live-cell applications such as cell adhesion and microbial biofilm studies under controlled-shear conditions. The IonFlux™ systems combine the microfluidic technology with integrated electronics to automate ion channel research in drug screening.

à Hamilton Company introduced the BioLevitator, which “brings walkaway high-content screening to the benchtop,” according to Jason March, dealer product business unit manager.  The automated cell culture system uses Global Eukaryotic Microcarrier (GEM™) technology from Global Cell Solutions, an optically nonclear bead with magnetic properties that enables pipetting of cells for media changes.  Researchers can do assays without cells coming in contact with harmful trypsin, and can make, store, and retrieve cells without human intervention.

à PerkinElmer unveiled its EnSpire multilabel plate readers for life sciences research, assay development, and drug discovery. The automation-friendly plate reader platforms enable scientists to access a wide range of cellular GCPR and kinase assays without cumbersome wash steps. “For researchers who need to maximize their resources, there’s lowered compound interference and assay costs, plus the ability to perform various assays on one instrument,” said Allan E. Atkinson, Ph.D., drug discovery specialist.

à Rotary is the future of real-time analysis, according to Brant Bassam, Ph.D., global marketing manager of Qiagen. He explained that the centrifugal rotary design of the company’s new Rotor-Gene Q PCR cycler offers high-speed data collection, thermal and optical uniformity, and the ability to look at multiple reactions at the same time in a single-tube, seven-plex assay for real-time metabolic analyses, protein melt analyses, and high-resolution melt analyses. Another introduction, the QIAgility, enables automated PCR setup at the personal level in the laboratory, eliminating manual pipetting steps.

à Symyx Technologies introduced its Powdernium SV (Storage Vial), a shaker powder dispense module for compound management, walk-up sample preparation, and reference standards preparation. Powdernium SV acts as a hybrid vial hopper and storage vessel for low-cost storage without subdividing materials to save and optimally manage precious resource materials, explained Brenda Waller, staff scientist. “A patent-pending valve cap provides precision flow regulation and quick-access storage without cross contamination to maintain integrity and the accuracy of powder dispense results. The disposable technology eliminates cleaning and carryover,” she explained.

à Tecan Group reported that its SBS-format MCA™ 96 disposable tips offer many pipetting solutions for automated liquid-handling workstations. Catering to all liquid-handling applications in life sciences—with sterile, nonsterile, and filtered options—the new product design has been optimized for increased throughput and reliability to provide a cost-effective solution for laboratory scientists, according to Mark Torresan, sales representative.

Torresan also discussed a novel technique for controlling pipetting workstations that does not require the user to have any previous knowledge of programming. Tecan’s Instant Pipetting™ relies on a touch screen to enable operators with any skill level to define applications and directly control pipetting with a liquid handling robot in real time, according to Torresan.

“[The technology] turns your Freedom EVO® pipetting workstation into an automated hand-pipette,” he said. ‘Mettler Toledo introduced Quantos™, a benchtop solution for automatic weighing and dosing of powder compounds such as reference standards, APIs, and chromatography samples used routinely in the laboratory.  The procedure is now done manually with a spatula, according to John Willham, lab sales specialist. Quantos improves laboratory efficiency, conserves expensive or precious compounds, and provides a better way to work with potentially hazardous substances, improving speed, safety, and savings in the laboratory with an optional safety enclosure and auto-sampler, he said.

à Nanopoint introduced a slide for culturing embryos for in vitro fertilization. The onstage incubator with a heating element enables imaging from the bottom. The IVF system is being beta tested. The objective is “putting embryos in an environment simulating in utero to determine embryo health,” according to Cathy Owen, president. The system also allows for the use of small volumes of reagents while keeping the embryo alive and maintaining full documentation capabilities.

à Heidenhain develops and manufactures linear encoders that detect errors in the alignment of instruments that can cause damage to the equipment or errors in the results.  Available in the nanometer range, the encoders are placed where pipettes and other fragile equipment might be to ensure safety and accuracy, according to Kevin Kaufenberg, national sales and product manager.

à Software as a service, or SaaS, is not your father’s LIMS, said J. Thomas Kent, president and CEO of Sciformatix, which released SciLIMS Samples and Storage Management for storage and inventory control in small to medium-sized labs.  The LIMS, which is modeled on Microsoft Outlook® and accessible via individual user subscriptions, operates on the internet, eliminating the need for complicated installation, downloading, or training, according to Kent.

à Darwin 3.0, a LIMS from Thermo Fisher Scientific, gives pharmaceutical labs time savings in validation efforts and cost savings in production time. Darwin 3.0’s new fully validated web interface allows for more efficient reporting and sharing of test data across the lab, reported Gary Walz, Darwin product manager. Built on the Microsoft.NET framework, Darwin can be extended to include dashboard-ready tools for multi-user and multisite environments where the interface gives immediate information on resource and instrument utilization, he added.

à BioMicroLab offers instruments for volume inventory management, sorting and weighing of vials and test tubes, and 2-D barcode decoding. Robotic platforms are compatible with SBS standards to enable integration with other HTS-oriented laboratory systems, said David B. Miller, president. New this year is the SampleScan A5 2-D tube reader that reportedly scans a rack of 96 tubes in 5 to 10 seconds and decodes them for LIMS input.

à Ocimum Biosolutions unveiled its Biotracker™ 4.1 R&D Life Science LIMS release, in which all the LIMS methods are now accessible through advanced web services-based API, as well as a Java-based API to support the changing needs in the drug research and development environment. “What this means is that genomics universities and companies can support new biotech platforms and core competency advancements,” said Louis J. Ciabattoni, product manager, LIMS solutions.