What’s the buzz in automation?

Feb. 21, 2017

The future of lab automation: Challenge everything

Significant improvements in lab automation come from a focus on reducing room for error—such as instruments that require too much human intervention or processes that do not meet reproducibility expectations. For example, it turns out that seemingly innocuous pipet tips can in fact be an enemy of good science. In fact, for something considered so integral to the lab, pipet tips create multiple sources of error. They clog, carry sample residue over, and cause samples to adhere to the inside of plasticware. In the case of tips, it was worth challenging the status quo.

By harnessing sound waves to move liquids and samples around, we could not only win the battle against pipet tips, but also manage to miniaturize reactions, minimize cross-contamination, and reduce waste. No longer saddled by these problems, scientists have used this approach to achieve better results in areas ranging from synthetic biology to individualized medicine studies based on patient cell screening to broad-scale drug discovery work.

This is a great example of how innovations in lab automation begin by questioning even the most widely used practices. It is tempting to just keep adding to existing tools and methods, but new bells and whistles seldom represent meaningful advances. The quest to eliminate error will continue to drive creative new approaches to problems that may not even be recognized yet in the lab.

— Mark Fischer-Colbrie, CEO
Provider of the Echo liquid handler

Automated LC-MS/MS for routine clinical testing

For many years, clinical diagnostic labs have relied on immunoassay-based methods for the analysis of biomolecules. However, these techniques for select assay have often been associated with a lack of specificity due to interference from molecules with similar molecular weight, such as lipids and metabolites. Part of the problem also lies in the fact that immunoassays are antibody-dependent, meaning that non-indigenous analytes must be measured using methods developed by a lab. For the purpose of improved diagnostics, many labs have closely considered the advantage of liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS). However, traditional LC-MS workflows require time-demanding sample preparation, which impacts turnaround times and puts sample integrity at risk due to many manual steps. As a result, labs must invest in additional staff to manage sample preparation, which can be considered a non-value added task toward the purpose of providing actionable healthcare information.

Owing to its superior, high throughput physical separation and mass analysis capabilities, liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) could greatly benefit clinical diagnostic labs. Fully-integrated, automated clinical LC-MS/MS analyzers hold the potential to expand the functionality of fast-paced lab workflows and streamline processes, improving productivity and accuracy. The ideal next generation, built-for-purpose systems will encompass automated sample preparation and handing, LC and triple quadrupole MS/MS, along with dedicated LC-MS/MS reagent kits, assays and software, all in one unit. As a result, installation, validation and training times could be considerably reduced.

The development of such a powerful, automated clinical analyzer will enable LC-MS/MS to become an integral part of the clinical diagnostic lab. This could ultimately improve the analytical results provided to physicians, thus enhancing the value of diagnostics and the quality of patient care.

— Sarah Robinson, PhD
Market Development Specialist, Thermo Fisher Scientific
Manufacturer of diagnostic technologies for the routine clinical lab

Automation brings OMICS to the clinic

The Omics approach aims to investigate the role and relationships that biomolecules play in the make-up of a cell and whole organism, allowing for a system-wide understanding of biological processes and disease progression. Ultimately, this opens the door to new and improved clinical tests and predictive management tools to guide physicians toward accurate, effective patient treatment decisions.

Omics technologies evolve daily to enable detection and identification of more molecules than ever before; however, the increased information needed for important discoveries and decisions means that clinical labs are faced with increased sample types and numbers, as well as many different diagnostic tests to process daily. This presents challenges when allocating limited resources, accurately and quickly processing samples, and processing and interpreting the resulting mountain of data for a patient-specific treatment plan. What’s more, it ultimately hampers patient treatment, where time is of the essence.

The good news is, technology providers have their finger on the pulse of solutions to address these challenges. For example, a good automated liquid handling system accommodates disparate sample types and vessels and different test types on the same platform to streamline workflows and reduce labor hours without compromising results. Computational hardware and software companies are working to solve bottlenecks in data storage, processing, and data interpretation.

In the near future, automated omics technologies will be performed as routinely as today’s lab tests, without sacrificing time or quality, so that healthcare professionals can focus on superior healthcare and improved patient wellbeing.

— Kristina Klette, PhD
Scientific Lead Group Manager
Hamilton Company

Key trends in automation

Fueled by population growth, demographic shifts, increases in chronic disease, and ongoing cost pressures, the world of healthcare is being transformed by trends toward consolidation, value-based health management, and industrialization.

Lab leaders have to do more with less. Clinical labs have—for years—adopted methodologies  such as Lean and Six Sigma, along with technologies such as lab automation, to cope with constantly increasing demands  in testing requirements, while also facing reimbursement and staffing challenges.

Today, many labs with a third- or fourth-generation automation system are expanding beyond traditional Chemistry, Immunoassay, Hematology, and Hemostasis disciplines. Laboratories’ automation needs will expand to broader areas such as anatomical pathology, blood bank, research, Bio-Banks, and mass spectrometry.

Another key trend in automation is the deeper integration of robotics with intelligent software for advanced digitalization of process (e.g., use of predictive analytics to optimize workflows, or use of healthcare big-data to drive individualized patient-centric workflows) to reduce costs while increasing the quality of care.

Future advancements in automation must continue to focus on increasing control and simplicity of lab processes so that lab personnel are able to focus less on managing operations and more on driving better clinical and business outcomes for laboratories.

— Franz Walt, President
Siemens Healthineers Laboratory Diagnostics
Manufacturer of Aptio Automation and the CentraLink Data Management System

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