March 15, 2008 (Vol. 28, No. 6)

Innovation, Miniaturization, and Integration Mark “LabAutomation2008”

Streamlined operations, out-of-the-box automation, and flexibility  were key trends discussed at “LabAutomation2008,” while miniaturization continued to be important as well. 

There is a need to work with smaller volumes and for miniaturizing everything. Presenters stressed that new products in smaller formats including microflow dispensers let researchers add benchtop units easily. They also noted that scientists are expanding from high-throughput screening into secondary screening.

Companies are thus trying to provide a complete workflow offering from sample preparation to data analysis and reporting with easy-to-use, open systems.

Multipurpose Platforms

Qiagen’s QIAsymphony® SP is the first system of the modular platform QIAsymphony. The modular instruments can be integrated to automate entire workflows from sample to result for applied testing, pharmaceutical research, life science research, and eventually molecular diagnostics, reported Michael Collasius, Ph.D., vp, automated systems.

Using magnetic-particle chemistry, QIAsymphony SP lets users load samples in many formats and types and isolate, purify, and prepare target analytes for further analysis. It enables the handling of blood, respiratory samples, tissues, and cultured cells with input volumes up to 1 mL. Over 40 protocols to process DNA, RNA, and proteins have been optimized for use on the QIAsymphony, which incorporates continuous loading of sample racks, reagents, and consumables at the rate of 1 to 96 samples per run.

Thermo Fisher Scientific introduced the KingFisher Flex magnetic particle processor for DNA/RNA, protein, and cell purification from virtually any source. Based on the KingFisher 96, the KingFisher Flex incorporates magnetic heads for 96- and 24-well plates. The 24-magnet head enables high-speed processing of samples from 200 to 5,000 µL in 24-well, deep-well plates and from 20 to 1,000 µL for 96-well plates. The larger combined volume range of the KingFisher Flex makes it suitable for clinical and biomedical researchers requiring larger volumes of starting material such as whole blood.

“As analytical sample management and throughputs increase, we’re developing solutions in response to critical laboratory workflow issues,” said Jas Sanghera, commercial director at TTP LabTech.

Lab2Lab, an automated sample transport system, sends individual microtubes between analytical workstations or laboratories. It uses pneumatic technology at the heart of the comPOUND sample store and a simple network of uPVC tubing to connect a minimum of two stations and transfer samples using a blast of air. Lab2Lab thus provides on-demand delivery of a single sample tube to a sampling device, then to the analytical hardware, and then to a waste container or collection point, explained Sanghera. Stations can be instruments located in different rooms or even on different floors of a building.

Cellix’ VenaFlux™ platform, reported to be the first semiautomated, high-throughput microfluidic cell-based assay system, measures cells’ adhesion to antibody-coated or endothelial cell cultured microchannels, mimicking physiological flow.

“We offer single-platform, continuous-flow, cell-based assays on a microchip that act like a human capillary, providing real-life physiological conditions and enabling researchers to look at the side effects of drugs before getting to clinical trials,” explained Julia Umlauf, sales representative.

Eppendorf’s epMotion Plug‘n’Prep® technology offers pretested methods for walk-away DNA/RNA purification. “Plug‘n’Prep technology like plug-and-play automates the whole nucleic acid purification process on one system with 30 kits of protocols,” explained Vincent Prezioso, Ph.D., marketing director.

The open, automated pipetting system lets researchers choose any purification technology—Invitrogen, Promega, Macherey-Nagel, Invitek, and 5Prime—by selecting their preferred brand and type of extraction kit, downloading the pretested method, and transferring the method data file to the epMotion in less than an hour, explained Dr. Prezioso.


The AutoReact™ mini-bioreactor system from Hudson Control Group is ideal for clone screening and selection, protein production for research applications, as well as media development and improvement for both research and manufacturing applications, according to Phil Farrelly, president. “Customers are looking for vessels smaller than one millimeter as well as more vessels instead of just one large one in order to keep track of more, use less space, use less reagents, and reduce costs.”

Using a 24-chamber bioreactor vessel with the footprint of a standard microplate, the AutoReact system automatically loads samples and feeds cells growing under 24 independent reaction conditions simultaneously. The fully automated system enables input of an unlimited number of test conditions to trigger automated feeding and/or sampling of the chambers’ contents, Farrelly noted.

Symyx Technologies’ Screening Pressure Reactor (SPR), a high-throughput research system, helps scientists perform experiments in parallel and in miniature, according to Anthony Volpe, vp, catalysis. It provides up to a 100-fold increase in the speed of screening over conventional techniques to enable a single scientist to perform up to 15,000 experiments per year to optimize catalysts and catalytic processes and to reduce reagent costs, noted Volpe. The SPR offers high-temperature operation up to 400°C and high-pressure operation up to 1,500 psi.

Microarrays and Microplate Readers

Biolog’s microarrays for microbiology and cell biology based on comprehensive analysis of cell phenotypes can be used on bacterial, fungal, and animal cells. Applications include microbial-species identification, cell fingerprinting, analysis, and quality control, analyzing the effects of genetic changes on cells, optimizing culture conditions of cells in research, bioprocess development, and stem cell studies.

Each Phenotype MicroArray is a 96-well microplate. Individual wells are prefilled with different substrates. Adding cells and a proprietary dye, researchers can quantify the rate at which different substrates support or affect cellular metabolism.

BioTek Instruments exhibited the Synergy™ 4 Multi-Mode Microplate Reader with Hybrid Technology™, the first in a new class of hybrid microplate readers. “Synergy 4 is the first multimode reader to combine filter-based and monochromator-based fluorescence-detection technologies in one instrument for flexibility and future microplate-based assays,” said Lenore Buehler, product manager. In addition to fluorescence intensity measurements, Synergy 4’s modular design allows detection of fluorescence polarization, time-resolved fluorescence luminescence, and UV-visible absorbance, Buehler concluded.

Tecan launched the Infinite M1000, a high-end microplate reader-detection system that has been especially optimized for time-resolved fluorescence energy transfer-based assays as well as glow, fast, and dual-color luminescence assays. The platform can be upgraded with new detection modes, bridging the drug discovery gap between research, assay development, and screening in the biopharmaceutical industry as well as for research laboratories with multiple users and ever-changing applications, the company stated.

The system’s applications include biomolecular assays for primary and secondary screening, receptor-ligand binding studies, cell-based assays, and UV fluorometry-based assays. 


Aurora Biotechnologies designed a series of 384-well microplates called 384-IQ™ microplates for imaging and high-content screening applications. It uses cyclo-olefin polymer (COP) to enhance optical clarity in sensitive assays, Peter Coassin, CTO, explained. The microplates are available in black, white, and clear with options for solid or film bottoms and offer an evaporation barrier well design for the control of evaporative edge effects. It also meets SBS and ANSI standard requirements, Coassin pointed out.

Millipore introduced the latest addition to the MultiScreen family of filter plates, the MultiScreenHTS+, for radiometric kinase and GPCR assays.

It has a mesh backing to create uniformly flowing wells to improve washing efficiency. The new plate design reduces overall nonspecific binding and variability in background and signal intensities, according to the company. The filter plates enable high-throughput, increased assay sensitivity, and detection flexibility, Millipore added. Validation testing showed a threefold decrease in well-to-well variability and improved signal-to-noise ratio over traditional filter plates, reported the company.

Liquid Handling

“New approaches to low-volume liquid handling include acoustic droplet injection, using focused sound to move liquids in the same way as medical ultrasound with no contact between the device and the solution, increasing precision, and minimizing solution loss,” according to Labcyte’s CEO, Elaine Heron, Ph.D.

The firm’s Echo® 520 liquid handler is designed specifically for medium-throughput labs with transfer rates of 300,000 or fewer wells per 24 hours. Using the same technology as Labcyte’s 550 and 555 systems, the Echo 520 is optimized to perform direct microplate-to-microplate transfer of solutions at volumes as low as 2.5 nL between 384- and 1,536-well microplates, Dr. Heron commented.

Formulatrix’  Formulator™ liquid handler uses microfluidic technology to dispense liquids into microplates. It dispenses grids, dilutions, and random experiments up to 10 times faster than any other liquid handler available, said Jeremy Stevenson, president of Formulatrix. It can dispense a 100 µL, three-ingredient, 96-well grid in as little as 60 seconds, he added.

The Formulator dispenses volumes down to 200 nL with CVs below 5%, no upper limit on dispense volume, and no difficult programming, Stevenson concluded.

The MicroLab® Nimbus is a 96-channel liquid-handling system for serial dilutions, plate replication, plate reformatting, MALDI target spotting, reagent addition, DNA/RNA separation, and solid-phase extraction methods, according to Susan Lee, OEM applications manager at Hamilton.

It offers a high-density layout with a small footprint designed to fit in most laminar fume hoods. Stackable tip racks enable walk-away automation, while individual row and column tip pickup facilitates serial dilution. The company’s Vector software, which is used with all its other automated platforms, controls the system.

Innovadyne Technologies introduced the Genome Express platform, a high-throughput, 16-channel dispenser that is targeted for use in genomic applications such as setting up PCR and sequencing reactions. The system can perform 384 1 µL reaction setups including template transfers and master mix addition in less than 10 minutes, said the company. Based on its aspirate-and-dispense technology, the Genome Express incorporates the company’s Nanodrop technology features. 

Artel created the MVS® (multichannel verification system), which reportedly streamlines liquid delivery performance verification of automated liquid handlers, documenting the volume dispense performance of each channel. It facilitates in-process quality-control assessment and minimizes manual intervention during volume verification protocols.

MSV measures dispensed volumes in multiple microtiter plates without repeated manual input thus facilitating in-process liquid-handler quality control. Based on ratiometric photometry, MVS uses the absorbance values of two proprietary dye solutions to calculate dispensed volume in each well of a microtiter plate.

Another new product unveiled was Viaflo’s Vision Pipettors, handheld, single- and multi-channel electronic pipettors featuring a touch-wheel controller for menu navigation. The units provide fast volume selection, a large and customizable multicolor display, a 12-channel 1,250 µL pipettor, bluetooth wireless PC connectivity, and multilanguage help menus, according to the company. Five single-channel models support volumes ranging from 0.5 µL to 5 mL. Four different eight- and 12-channel models support maximum volumes of 12.5, 125, 300, and 1,250 µL, and two 16-channel models are available in volumes of 12.5 or 125 µL.

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