Send to printer »

Corporate Profile : Apr 15, 2011 (Vol. 31, No. 8)

Microplate Alternative Finds a Home in AgBio

Douglas Scientific Now Targeting Pharma and Biotech Operations with Its Novel Technology
  • Carol Potera

Move over microtiter plates. A novel alternative platform that supports nanoliter-size samples maximizes output and minimizes the costs of high-throughput screening. It’s called the Array Tape™ Platform, a continuous polypropylene tape containing embossed wells designed for specific applications.

“Microtiter plates are cumbersome and they are inhibiting research, given the increase in screening demands,” says Dan Malmstrom, president and COO at Douglas Scientific, the company that manufactures Array Tape and accompanying instruments. Douglas Scientific is a wholly owned subsidiary of Douglas Machine, a leader in automated packaging systems for major consumer brands since 1964.

A similar continuous inline tape technology was first invented to deliver microchips to assembly lines to improve the manufacturing of electronics. The inventor of that tape, Jim May, wanted to move the concept into another emerging market and turned to biotechnology. May approached Douglas Machine in 2004, and they set up Douglas Scientific to develop the Array Tape Platform for the bioscience industry.

Malmstrom calls Array Tape a “disruptive” technology, a term borrowed from the computer and information technology world. “With Array Tape, you get a 10-fold increase in throughput, while at the same time, reducing costs by 80–90 percent.” That’s a big change for biotechnology, similar to how the Microsoft DOS operating system transformed computers in the 1980s or downloading music to iPods changed the music industry in the 1990s.

Better than Microtiter Plates

The Array Tape Platform is inline, modular, and highly automated. The combination of the Array Tape consumable, Nexar® liquid-handling system, Soellex™ thermal cycler, and Araya® inline fluorescent detection instruments provides a continuous reel-to-reel flow process. Douglas Scientific manufactures and sells the Nexar, Soellex, and Araya instruments.

In addition, the Array Tape Platform eliminates manual handling and complex robotics. Indexing holes along the tape accurately position and continuously feed reaction wells through the Nexar and Araya components. Unique barcodes insure accurate identification of individual samples during and after processing.

Researchers who use Array Tape for SNP genotyping have confirmed the benefits of the tape platform over microtiter plates, according to the company. On average, SNP genotyping laporatories are able to increase throughput from about 150 microtiter plates (384 wells each) per day to 400 arrays on a continuous strip of Array Tape designed with a 384-well format. For PCR processing, one Soellex thermal cycler handles up to 230,000 samples in Array Tape, which replaces 18 water baths required for microtiter plates. The Araya fluorescent instrument scans a 384-well array in 20 to 30 seconds, compared to several minutes for a microtiter plate. A standard microtiter plate process typically generates 57,600 data points per day, compared to 153,600 with Array Tape.

These differences result in environmental and business savings. Overall, seven times more plastic is needed to manufacture a 384-well microtiter plate than a 384-well Array Tape. Douglas Scientific’s proprietary platform also reduces reagent storage, handling, and disposal costs by 70 to 90% due to smaller sample volumes needed for Array Tape (e.g., less than 800 nanoliters per well for Array Tape versus 5 microliters or more per well for microplates). The Soellex thermal cycler uses 11 times less energy than 18 waterbaths. Moreover, the continuous, inline Array Tape Platform is a “walk-away” operation that can lower labor costs by an estimated 60%.

First Adopters

Agricultural biotechnology companies are at the forefront of adopting the new technology. They are using Array Tape to perform SNP genotyping to improve molecular plant breeding and product development. “Once they see the results, they want to replace microtiter plates still used for other processes like ELISA and compound storage,” says Malmstrom.

The Array Tape Platform is fairly simple to operate once installed, says Craig McLain, vp of marketing operations. Douglas Scientific offers a one week, in-depth class to train and certify technicians. “We work with clients to integrate Array Tape into their existing workflow. To maximize returns, a lab must evaluate and often modify up- and downstream processes.”

The use of Array Tape by agricultural biotechnology companies could help them solve food shortages worldwide. Forecasts for population growth, changing weather patterns, and reductions in the world’s food supply are daunting. “We want to help our clients discover and deploy seeds that can grow in different parts of the world under changing weather conditions,” says Malmstrom.

The next opportunity for Douglas Scientific is to introduce Array Tape to pharmaceutical and other bioscience companies for high-throughput screening. However, breaking into the pharmaceutical and diagnostics marketplace requires a higher level of sophistication. “We hope to develop and perfect technologies in plant genetics that will transfer to pharma, animal health, and biotech,” says McLain.