By James O'Brien

Quality sample preparation is fundamental to the analytical process. No wonder it can take up to 60% of a laboratory technician’s time. Today’s robotic systems are turbo charging this process – especially when it comes to detecting residual antibiotics.

One of the growing concerns over the last few years has been the presence of trace residues and contaminants in food – and how to detect their presence and determine their extent.

 antibiotic-resistant-bacteria mass spectometry

Residual antibacterials in food are a particular worry as they are a risk to human health. This is because they can contribute to the transmission of antibiotic-resistant pathogenic bacteria through the food chain.

The EU and USA regulatory agencies have compiled a list of banned drugs, and authorized veterinary drugs (antibiotics) are not permitted above certain tolerance levels. There are also requirements in place, set by the EU Commission Decision 2002/657/EC, for the analytical methods to be used in determining the presence of veterinary drug residues in food and feedstuffs.

Enhanced performance provides many benefits

Powerful mass spectrometric detectors and innovative chromatographic technologies are sensitive and selective enough to meet the requirement for this type of analysis. However, sample preparation can be a bottleneck in these operations. Not only can it take a long time but it can also be a potential source of error.

Typically immunoassays can have an incubation time of several hours. This makes manual processing relatively slow, with only a few plates per day per lab technician. The good news is that recent developments in automation have led to major performance enhancements. These can lead to increased productivity of clinical laboratories, decreased operational costs, minimized (human) errors, and enhanced workplace safety for laboratory personnel.

The development of automated processes was, in the past, held back by the limited availability and high cost of third party devices (such as readers, centrifuges and shakers) controlled by the liquid handler operating software. Now that this has been overcome, lab automation is continuing apace. This breakthrough in performance is being applied to many areas, such as drug discovery, drug target biology, informatics, biomarker research, molecular diagnostics, bio-analytical chemistry and high throughput screening.

Automated sample preparation in practice

LCTech, based in Dorfen, Germany, has been developing and supplying products and methods for sample preparation and analysis since 1998. The focus is set on trace contaminant testing of food, feed, and environmental samples – as well as samples in the fields of forensics, doping control, and in the pharmaceutical industry. The company’s in-house developed product range takes full advantage of automated systems to simplify and speed up the preparation of samples for analysis.

Dr. Uwe Aulwurm, Head of R&D at LCTech, explained: “Our automated sample preparation system, FREESTYLE™, is designed for laboratories preparing complex samples for quality control testing and contamination screening. To meet the varied workflow demands of our customers, we designed a modular solution combining a general purpose liquid handling system with a range of different processing modules, which can be used individually or in combination. These included options for solid phase extraction, gel permeation chromatography and evaporation as well as two new modules that provide complete automation from raw extract to chromatogram with incredible sensitivity. Our latest development based on the robotic platform is FREESTYLE™ XANA™, an automated sample preparation system for water analysis. We weren’t looking to reinvent the wheel by developing our own XYZ robotic system, so we sourced a partner and components that seamlessly met our needs.”

For many laboratories, robotic systems are the way to go. And for good reason. They enable samples to be processed cheaper, faster and with more control over the quality of the result. As a result, automation is fast becoming the solution of choice to break through the sample preparation bottleneck.

Learn more

To find out more on Tecan’s automation components, visit 


About the author

James O'Brien

James O'Brien

James is a VP at Tecan responsible for the Tecan Integration Group, a part of the Life Sciences Business, which specializes in custom automation solutions for customers. He has worked in a variety of roles for Tecan over the last 14 years in service, product management, marketing, and sales operations. Prior to joining Tecan, James worked in high throughput genomic research at Johns Hopkins University. He is passionate about creating innovative solutions which solve the lab automation problems of tomorrow.