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Automated Workstations Offer Semi-or-fully-Automated 'Walk-Away' Platforms

In both industrial and academic labs, researchers are actively increasing the number of automated applications and tasks in order to improve performance and productivity while reducing costs and streamlining research. These changes include automating

by Tim Cloutier, Ph.D.
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In both industrial and academic labs, researchers are actively increasing the number of automated applications and tasks in order to improve performance and productivity while reducing costs and streamlining research. These changes include automating simple functions such as liquid master mix creation and reagent addition as well as more complex applications such as nucleic acid/protein purification and ancillary device integrations. The market has also seen a steady evolution from simple automated pipetting systems to fully-integrated workstations that provide total application solutions. This progression is driven by scientists requiring that automated and semi-automated platforms execute phases of research beyond basic pipetting.

General liquid handling

Liquid handing is part of nearly all basic life science research, drug discovery and environmental health applications. An effective automated liquid handling workflow, regardless of the application, greatly streamlines procedures, which increases reproducibility, reliability, flexibility, and throughput. PerkinElmer’s flexible, modular JANUS® Automated Workstations perform academic- and industrystandard liquid handling applications accurately and precisely while providing scientists with an easy to use, walk away solution. JANUS also serves as a scalable platform for all laboratory automation where integration of plate devices purification systems, multimode plate readers, thermocyclers or comparable technologies is required.

JANUS Workstation integrated with an EnSpire Multimode Plate Reader for automated microplate transfer.

From lab to lab and customer to customer, fundamental liquid handling needs can evolve quite differently. For example, driven by increasing demands to identify firstin- class drug candidates to fill discovery pipelines, large pharmaceutical companies are changing their screening infrastructures to accommodate both lower volume pipetting and higher density plate formats. In the early part of this decade, many HTS assay miniaturization technologies were viewed as the required critical component for successful drug discovery campaigns.

Presently, the trend has shifted even more towards higher density screening of focused small molecule and biologics libraries designed for specific target classes and disease states. This level of screening is associated with an absolute requirement for highly precise and reliable low volume pipetting capabilities.

PerkinElmer has recognized this trend and has developed dedicated workstations equipped with proprietary Modular Dispense Technology® (MDT) multichannel pipetting heads and/or pin tools delivering reliable and effective performance in either semi- or fully-automated ‘walk-away’ platforms. These platforms become even more valuable to drug discovery when combined with other instruments such as multimode plate readers, plate storage devices, and other instruments that can offer seamless, fullyautomated application solutions. Those combinations allow more efficient use of dwindling resources in today’s struggling BioPharma economic environment.

JANUS Workstation equipped with Modular Dispense Technology and Gripper arm for greater versatility in multichannel pipetting and microplate handling.

Molecular biology

Molecular biology is a vast market with nearly every type of customer or institution utilizing similar techniques and protocols but, though the technical procedures are similar, the automation platform needs of each customer segment vary. Molecular biology research laboratories require rapid, cost-effective methods to produce and analyze high quality nucleic acids, proteins and biologics. To address these needs, PerkinElmer offers automated application workstations that provide a flexible array of purification, isolation and processing solutions. These procedures include nucleic acid/protein purification and normalization, next-generation sequencing (NGS) library preparation and target sequence capture, (RT) PCR amplification and product purification, biochemical and cell-based assay reagents, integration to detection and imaging instruments, and other downstream analysis techniques.

For most genomic-based laboratories, such as forensics, public health or clinical facilities, the first step in sample processing is to extract and purify nucleic acids from a variety of sample types including whole blood or stains, serum, buccal swabs, bacterial cultures, viruses, tissue and cultured cells. Nucleic Acid Technology (NAT) protocols are diverse and generally separated into subgroups distinguished by differing chemistries: (i) genomic DNA from blood, tissue and cultured cells, (ii) RNA from cultured cells, viruses and tissue, and (iii) plasmid DNA from bacterial cultures. JANUS Genomic Application Workstations are capable of fully automating, from virtually any type of genomic sample, nearly all NAT applications spanning nucleic acid extraction to full sample characterization. They can be configured to perform target separations by biomagnetic, vacuum or centrifugation technologies to reliably prepare and purify nucleic acid for such assays as PCR, genotyping, Sanger and NGS analysis, RNAi screening, microarray construction, stem cell differentiation, biomarker characterization and others. Furthermore, in a global shift towards proactive epidemiological tracking, public health researchers and clinicians increasingly use both DNA and RNA NAT to identify strains of viral outbreaks in order to track mutations as they spread throughout a population.

Another key global industry in critical need for fully automated application solutions is forensics. With DNA becoming a key component for solving crimes, exonerating innocent persons and identifying victims of mass catastrophes, there has been a major upswing in the number of forensics labs looking to automation for increasing their sample processing capacity. Currently there is a significant backlog of forensic samples due to the increased demand for DNA analyses that outcompetes the existing manual sample processing capabilities. Hence, fully automated robotic platforms that carry out necessary extraction, quantification, normalization, setup and cleanup steps have shown to drastically streamline protocols, improve reproducibility, reduce sample cross-contamination, and free forensic scientists for critical data analysis and review steps. However, for laboratories unfamiliar with robotic platforms or those lacking time and/or personnel resources, introduction of automation can exasperate the complexity of system verification and validation, both of which are critical in legal environments.

To address the needs of the forensics industry, PerkinElmer released the JANUS Forensic Workstation, which efficiently automates the sample processing steps from DNA isolation, real-time qPCR quantification, normalization and dilution, and the setups for small tandem repeat (STR) typing and DNA sequencing plates. This platform enables the automation of a laboratory’s entire process from DNA purification through STR sequence analysis or can simply remove a single, critical bottleneck such as qPCR setup. And, to mitigate some of the challenges associated with system validation, PerkinElmer has demonstrated full automation capabilities with several prominent forensic kit technologies including the Quantifiler® Human DNA Quantification and Identifiler® PCR Amplification Kits from Applied Biosystems.

As biopharmaceutical and environmental industries continue to drive toward increases in productivity, improved data quality and a reduction in overall costs, automation of laboratory processes will become more vital.