The COVID-19 pandemic has forced everyone to look at laboratory routines to see if they are really pandemic proof. For example, the explosive demand for high throughput genomic analysis often creates upstream pressures to process many more samples and prepare high quality DNA. The rapid shutdown of non-essential workplaces and services, coupled with the surge in demand for laboratory testing, put immense strain on multiple aspects of normal laboratory operations, such as strict rules on the need for personal protective equipment – which was in limited supply – and required physical distancing. Consumables stocks and reagents also dwindled, as they were being used at a much faster rate and supply chains were affected by global demand. Now that the limitations of current laboratory routines have been highlighted, it’s time to consider how to make laboratories pandemic proof.
Precision medicine is potentially revolutionizing diagnostics and treatment by targeting mutations that are specific to individual patients with various diseases, including cancer. The Institute of Pathology and Neuropathology at the Essen University Hospital, Germany, is following this ethos, relying on NGS to look for biomarkers associated with a number of key malignancies.
It has been estimated that, by 2050, the world will need to produce 70% more food than in 2005, and will need 50% more fresh water and fuel, while reducing CO2 emissions by 100%. These are massive global challenges that are not going to be solved by current technologies, which is why international teams at the Centre for Solar Biotechnology, based at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) at The University of Queensland, Australia, are working with a wide range of industry partners to advance novel algae-based solutions to tackle these issues.
SARS-CoV-2 has hit the world by storm and testing has had a major part to play in the fight against the virus, helping to track cases and slow rates of infection. ABC Labs, based at the Karolinska campus in Stockholm, was founded soon after the start of the pandemic with the specific purpose of establishing large scale and high quality PCR and ELISA COVID-19 testing in Sweden. The laboratory analyzes thousands of tests on a daily basis in partnership with the country’s Public Health Agency and a number of regional and private healthcare providers, to help stop the virus.
UK Biocentre has been central to the UK Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, repurposing its entire facility to become a national center for SARS-CoV-2 molecular testing. To help meet an ambitious target of 100,000 tests per day across the country, the organization has established a new mega-lab, partnering with Tecan to design and commission a suite of liquid handling automation platforms in just a few weeks.
G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) have an integral role in the development of various diseases, and are therefore a key focus for many researchers investigating novel drug targets or attempting to understand more about human health. Scientists at ShanghaiTech University have implemented Tecan Labwerx™ customized laboratory solutions for compound management in their busy core facility, and are using these automated systems to process high throughput assays, ultimately resolving important GPCR structures.
The emergence and outbreak of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 at the end of 2019 has created an urgent need for testing to help limit the spread of COVID-19. AusDiagnostics has used its patented, multiplexed-tandem PCR technology to develop a test to detect SARS-CoV-2 and distinguish between the different causes of coronavirus-like infections.
Gaining an accurate diagnosis of HIV is essential to ensure that patients get the right treatment, and that the disease is contained as much as possible. In Kenya, where HIV is prevalent, the quality of testing across the country is being monitored through a program established in 2007 that sends out manually produced proficiency testing panels. The demand for this service has grown immensely with the development of point-of-care testing and, to address this, the National Public Health Laboratory has turned to automation to produce more samples in a shorter timeframe and with improved accuracy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has required an unprecedented level of collaboration within the scientific community, as labs around the world aim to characterize and understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus in order to develop and implement new diagnostic tests, therapeutics and vaccines. This cooperative approach has led to some unexpected partnerships, as techniques and knowhow from across numerous disciplines are brought together to accelerate research and testing activities. Professor Nir Friedman’s team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has been at the center of one such situation, using its knowledge of workflow automation from investigating yeast genomics to develop a novel large-scale sequencing-based assay for the detection of SARS-CoV-2.
The ever-increasing throughput and ever-decreasing cost of next generation sequencing have made this technology a practical and affordable solution for everything from molecular diagnostics and antimicrobial susceptibility testing to crop research and environmental monitoring. For many of these applications, the bottleneck in the workflow – which can account for considerable hidden costs – lies in sample extraction. Tecan has partnered with Zymo Research to offer labs an automated and optimized solution for nucleic acid processing.
Probiotics play an important role in animal nutrition, ensuring a healthy balance of gut microbiota to improve performance or productivity. Scientists at Christian Hansen are using high throughput liquid handling systems to fully automate sample inoculation and plating for research into novel bacteria for animal feed supplements.
DNA isolation and PCR set-up can be laborious and time consuming when performed manually. Dutch pathology and microbiology services provider PAMM has overcome this issue by automating its molecular testing protocols for sexually transmitted infections and gastrointestinal conditions, freeing up staff to perform other tasks.
Drug discovery is a lengthy and expensive process, particularly in the early candidate identification stages, where screening of large numbers of compounds is required. Researchers at the University of Central Florida are using artificial intelligence (AI) to aid candidate selection for antimalarial drugs, making this selection process more efficient and cost effective, as well as increasing the likelihood of success.
Liquid biopsies offer the potential for the minimally-invasive detection of a growing number of cancers. Epigenomics is using its expertise in epigenetics to develop rapid tests for blood-borne cancer biomarkers, based on the unique DNA methylation fingerprint of cancerous cells.
Understanding how and when laboratory automation assets are being used is crucial to maximize productivity and enable effective resource planning in high throughput facilities. California’s Ambry Genetics has a portfolio of almost 60 Fluent® and Freedom EVO® liquid handling platforms, and has worked closely with Tecan on the development of Introspect™, a cloud-based service that provides a comprehensive overview of precisely when and how laboratory automation systems are being used.
Rapid advances in genomic and molecular diagnostic techniques have seen these technologies make a rapid transition from the research bench to the clinic. As with any test used for diagnostic applications, ease of use and reproducible, reliable results are crucial to the successful uptake of molecular methods, meaning that many IVD suppliers are turning to laboratory automation. Sansure Biotech has successfully developed a market for qPCR-based diagnostic technologies in China, and has partnered with Tecan to offer complete automation of its nucleic acid extraction and screening workflows.
Improving sustainability in the materials industry is vital to help address some of the biggest issues faced by today’s world, including climate change and the use of toxic chemicals. Checkerspot, a start-up materials company, is using biotechnology to harness the power of nature, fermenting algae to produce novel bio-based oils for use in materials in the outdoor recreational sector and an expanding number of other applications.
Genetic testing is at the forefront of modern medicine, and powerful tools are now available to identify inherited DNA characteristics that are potentially detrimental to health or conversely show susceptibility to targeted therapies. One such service, the Sanford Chip, has been developed by Sanford Health as a screening tool to identify pathogenic and likely pathogenic genetic variations that can be used to estimate the risk of some cancers and cardiac conditions.
The initial screening of chromatographic conditions can be a major bottleneck in the development of protein purification protocols. Italian company BiCT – Biological and Chemical Technologies – has turned to automation to overcome this issue, implementing parallel processing of miniature chromatography columns on a liquid handling platform to enable rapid simultaneous screening of a range of conditions. This maximizes the prospect of achieving the best result for each project while saving time and resources.
Genetic testing to screen for congenital defects is useful to identify susceptibility to, or the cause of, many diseases. The medical genetics department at the Policlinico di Milano – a teaching hospital in Italy’s Lombardy region – is using automation to improve the throughput of its genetic screening workflow, aiming to increase the number of diseases it can test for, and the number of samples it can handle.
High sensitivity immunoassays allow earlier detection and diagnosis of patient conditions, leading to earlier interventions and better patient prognoses. Immunodiagnostics company Singulex’s unique immunoassay technology allows early detection of even low abundance biomarkers for a wide range of conditions, and the company has partnered with Tecan to develop an intuitive, fully automated platform – the Singulex Clarity® system – which will allow clinical labs to take advantage of this novel technology for routine diagnostics.
Biopharmaceutical production is a complex process compared to small molecule drug manufacture, requiring the interaction of multiple biosynthesis pathways to create the target product. KBI Biopharma is using high throughput bioanalysis to gain an in-depth understanding of these biological processes, ensuring efficient, reproducible and scalable biomanufacturing processes.
Personalized medicine is on the horizon, and cell membrane lipidomics may hold the key. Italian biotechnology company Lipinutragen is studying the relationship between the membrane status and dietary and health conditions. A crucial part of the process is the isolation of mature red blood cells, which can be performed more precisely and reproducibly using laboratory automation than by manual processing.
Automation offers many benefits for bioprocess development involving multiple microbial strains, yet few off-the-shelf platforms are capable of combining liquid handling tasks with microscale cultivation. The Microbial Bioprocess Lab at Forschungszentrum Jülich needed a customized platform to support its research, and turned to the Tecan Integration Group for a solution that has improved its microbial cultivation workflows.
Continuous advances in medical understanding are leading to rapid growth in the demand for diagnostic testing, making automation essential for laboratories trying to address this increase in their workloads. Many providers are also centralizing and consolidating testing to reduce costs, relying on instruments with higher throughput capacities to meet the demands of large service laboratories. Spanish biotechnology company Vircell recently partnered with Tecan to create a high throughput automated system for its VirClia® assays, building on the success of the company’s existing VirClia instrument.
Virology testing at a molecular level is crucial for a fast and sensitive initial diagnosis, but its role doesn’t stop there. Clinicians frequently request retrospective analysis, sometimes as a means of monitoring drug response or identifying drug resistance, and also increasingly to understand the underlying mechanisms that lead to, for example, organ rejection. The San Raffaele Hospital in Milan has developed an automated archiving system that allows safe and accurate collection of clinical samples, as well as easy access and retrieval when further testing is required.
Biomanufacturing requires careful separation of the molecule of interest from other cellular products to ensure the quality and stability of the final product. This is even more important for the manufacture of biotherapeutics, as the presence of unwanted molecules in pharmaceutical preparations can affect the efficacy and safety of biologically-derived drugs. FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies is using automated chromatography condition screening to generate more data in less time, helping to improve the performance of purification processes and accelerate biological drug manufacturing.
Tecan has further extended the flexibility of the Freedom EVO Liquid Handling (LiHa) Arm with the launch of a 5 ml disposable tip. Previously only available to Tecan customers working with fixed tips, the unrivalled pipetting volume range offered by the LiHa Arm can now be exploited by customers who require the highest levels of sample security.
The biosimilars market is expanding rapidly as the patents expire for an increasing number of high profile biopharmaceutical agents. The complex nature of biologics requires extensive characterization of the production techniques and in vivo effects of new biosimilars before they can be released onto the market. Coherus Biosciences is using advanced laboratory automation to help screen chromatography conditions as part of its downstream purification processes for new biosimilars.
Mass spectrometry is rapidly becoming the method of choice for quantitative analysis of micronutrients such as vitamins B1, B6, B12 and D, as well as for steroids, hormones and many other drugs. For clinical laboratories, the bottleneck of MS-based techniques is not the analysis, but the pre-processing of the samples to remove proteins and other biological molecules that could interfere with the results.
Synthetic biology is, quite literally, the creation of new genetic constructs and novel micro-organisms with innovative functions. Together with systems biology, it provides a platform for translating advances in genomics, proteomics and molecular biology into real-world applications.
The industrialization of biology has become possible thanks to the automation of repetitive tasks – such as liquid handling – making 24/7 operation feasible. This cost-saving automation addresses several major concerns for biology workflows.
Testosterone levels are typically determined using automated immunoassay analyzers, but this has limitations. Liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MSMS) offers a selective and accurate alternative, and the Center for Advanced Laboratory Medicine at the University of California San Diego is using a novel extraction technology to automate sample preparation for this technique.
The success of hematopoietic stem cell donation is highly dependent on a close match between the donor and recipient human leukocyte antigen (HLA) alleles. DKMS Life Science Lab performs HLA typing of over a million potential donors a year, relying on automation to provide a cost-effective, high quality solution that delivers reliable high sample throughput.
Specialist laboratories engaged in molecular genetics and cytogenetics are turning to automation to cope with ever-increasing sample numbers, implementing tailored solutions designed to handle a range of materials and meet specific testing needs.
Receptor binding assays form an integral part of the preclinical screening service provided by Eurofins Pharma Discovery Services division. The first stage of the protocol is the transfer of tissue samples to a 96-well plate, a process that must be carefully performed to avoid any cross-contamination.
Our automation laboratory serves principally the lead optimization stage of drug discovery, so we receive several hundred samples per week from medicinal chemistry labs,” said Dr Claude Dufresne, Senior Investigator, who has been working at the Merck site since 1988 and has been developing automation methods and systems for most of the past ten years. “From those samples, we prepare serial dilution plates for distribution to various biological assay laboratories and for our own uses. We also store the samples in order to supply biology labs with samples for retesting and secondary assays; that’s why we needed the SSS