By Ray Hicks, President, GasLab
I attended the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening - SLAS Conference and Expo in San Diego, CA at the end of January to learn more about medical laboratory automation and the sensors used in the processes. Here’s what I learned.
According to their website, “SLAS is a global community of more than 16,000 scientists—from academia, government and industry—collectively focused on leveraging the power of technology to achieve scientific objectives.” They hold conferences yearly in both the US and the EU.
Basically, this is the trade show for automation systems for dispensing very small qualities of liquid into standardized trays of vials. Depending on the automation, there may be a number of steps including:
- Addition of ingredients to all or a select number vials
- Capping and uncapping
- Labeling for identification
- Heating and cooling
- Centrifuge, shaken, sonicated or magnetically stirred
- Nebulized or incubated
- Irradiated with specific wave lengths
During the processes above the environment is controlled for temperature, pressure, pH, atmospheric gas and particulates. To maintain consistency, sterilization and hygiene are required. In fact, this is so important it is a whole industry.
Modern Medicine Relies on Automation
The automation is necessary as the number samples is huge, and the process steps can take from seconds to hours. For example, for genetic sequencing the process time is 48 hours to handle 1 tray of 384 vials. There are shorter processes, but to meet all specifications it still takes time.
As a side note, it was interesting when I mentioned to one of the exhibitors the 23 and Me personal gene sequencing service. The engineer smirked, and carefully explained that comparing what the consumer sites offered to the latest technology was like comparing a yardstick to a micrometer.
But back to automation. All of the vials, during and after processing are inspected. The common reference for the machine that makes the measurement is called the “plate reader.” The reactions or growth is measured optically by fluorescence, i.e. infrared photon counting (salination) to measure the energy expended by cell growth.
The newest products and the future is multi-spectral imaging where the culture or sample is measured by as range of wavelengths from UV thru IR. Multi-spectral imaging has been around since the early spectrometers. This is made possible by the advances in image sensors, and illumination devices. AI and expert systems analysis software is used to process the images and measurement from multi-spectral synthetic vision systems that that learn what a good or bad culture is to speed the screening.
Our fellow Heiko from Micro-Hybrid (they make a great IR CO2 Incubator sensor we offer) has firsthand experience one of the many uses for the bio-processing equipment. Genetically engineer agents are built from a person’s own genetic material, then altered, incubated and delivered to in order to combat difficult to treat cancers.
In Heiko's case, his son’s Leukemia was treated with genetically modified cells derived for the child’s DNA.
The units of measurement in this industry is small very small. Micro-liter is big, nano-liter is common and pico-liter not unusual. Dispensing a pico-liter of fluid is not only very difficult to do, but must be reproducible and accurate.
The first thing I found out is they have a communications standard for all the equipment.
If is call CLSI and is documented at CLSI.org. In this industry your equipment has to conform to CLSI standards or you can’t sell it.
This is a mature, well documented industry with published standards. They are willing to experiment with new methods continuously, and if successful, work to deploy rapidly.
About the Automation
Modern laboratory automation systems are not in-line or serial. Instead, they use the work cell approach where a transfer robot is surrounded by pieces of equipment that each perform a complex tasks. This model is used in the automotive industry, often refer to as a dial machine, with a single arm that moves in a circle from station to station. Here's an example:
While at first it appears that the robot is replacing a human, the reality is that, just like in the automotive industry, the robot is best at performing dull, repetitive tasks that require precision hundreds of times a day. This frees up time for researchers to do what they are good at - research.
While watching the machines in action, I realized that most to the samples need to be stored for future reference and to prove that the tests were made and the results are accurate or can be audited. It turns out large automated systems to store thousands of samples is also a huge business that has its own set of protocols and best practices. These "bio-banks" are similar to the ones used to store harvester eggs for IVF applications – another opportunity for oxygen and CO2 sensors.
Because of the hygiene requirements, the dispensing nozzles used to add solutions to the vials, the filters and so much more are “single use” components. For example SPT Lab Tech offers micro nozzles called disposable pipettes on tape reels like electronic components.
One interesting technology was ISA surface treatment deposited by vacuum deposition. The coating control surface tension, making surfaces hydrophobic or hydrophilic. It is only a few nanometers thick. The secondary benefit is that it prevents bacterial growth, which makes gaseous measurements in liquid like aquaculture, algae or fermentation possible while keeping the filter membrane from fouling.
One of the most interesting machines I saw was a M2P desktop automated single tray processor, using glass bottom vial trays. Each vial bottom has 2 photophore dots that measure the O2 and pH of the cell. The material is supplied by PreSence a German chemical company. M2P can print the material to any number of surfaces.
In addition, several companies like Torrey Pines, Inheco and others produced bio incubators built to the CLSI standards.
Advance Solutions, Life Sciences and BioAssemblyBot, in conjunction with GE IN Cell Analyzer showcased a process robot producing liver cells by 3D printing. Here is a video showing 3D bio-printing. Basically, they print an armature, then print cells on to the armature and over a number of cycles tissues can be grown.
What I Learned
We learned so much about so many applications, it was one of those experiences where you want to put you hand up and say “my brain is full…”
However, one thing is clear: advances in modern medicine now rely on automation. The culmination of this will be printing new body parts. In my opinion this technology is in it's infancy but organ replacement combined with gene therapy will revolutionize the medical industry and health care. The future is here.