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Automation Trends in Analytical Labs

Rohan Steel, PhD, is a project leader in the Biological Research Unit at Racing Analytical Services, Ltd. (RASL), in Flemington, Australia.

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RASL is a leading drug testing lab in Australia, performing sports drug testing, workplace drug testing, and sports supplement testing. Before joining the RASL team, Dr. Steel managed the mass spectrometry facility at St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research in Fitzroy, Australia. He studied biochemistry and cell biology at Melbourne University, completing his PhD at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne.

Q: Can you tell me a bit more about the work that Racing Analytical Services does and what you and your team are responsible for as part of the Biological Research Unit?

A: The Biological Research Unit has been established to counter the use of novel biological doping agents. To date, these new forms of doping have encompassed protein- and peptide-based drugs but may eventually include gene doping. All this incredible technology is coming out of biomedical research and is designed to improve human health. But at the same time, other people are combing through this technology looking for other applications that can be exploited for commercial profit. There is now an increasingly large grey market for new medical technology that is targeting the performance enhancement, image enhancement, and life extension markets. The Biological Research Unit focuses on how these new technologies apply to the Victorian [Australia] racing industry, but the majority of the commercial activity appears to be focused on human consumption. Because these protein- and peptide-based drugs are completely different [from] the small molecule drugs normally covered by drug testing laboratories, the Biological Research Unit has had to develop a range of new strategies to achieve efficient and cost-effective testing for these agents.

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Related Article: INSIGHTS on Sports Doping 

Q: What do you use automation for in your work?

A: Finding athletes [who] are using performance-enhancing drugs is always a process of “looking for the needle in the haystack.” In the case of novel biological doping agents, the search is even more challenging. In order to provide effective screening, the largest number of samples needs to be screened for the minimal possible cost. As labor can be the most expensive part of an analysis, the use of laboratory automation is an attractive solution. Racing Analytical Services is investing significant resources in increasing the use of laboratory automation in an effort to improve sample throughput and reduce testing costs. This is a significant challenge, as most of the existing methods have been developed for individual samples handled in glass tubes.

Q: What key trends have you seen in laboratory automation recently?

A: The testing performed by Racing Analytical Services is SPE [solid phase extraction]-intensive. For the past 20 years, the company has run a battery of automated SPE robots running individual 3 ml SPE cartridges. However, the use of 96-well SPE plates would provide a significant improvement in productivity. There have been a number of robotic systems equipped with 96-well vacuum SPE manifolds, but operating these with difficult matrices such as equine urine and plasma can be a challenge due to variations in sample viscosity. A new range of instruments [is] being produced with positive-pressure SPE manifolds that provide much more even flow rates across the plate. We are currently developing our SPE methods on a Hamilton Microlab NIMBUS equipped with a 96-channel pipetting head and a 96-port positive-pressure manifold. The modern robotic systems with sophisticated sensors and graphical programming systems are so capable it is easy to be enthusiastic about their capabilities. The challenge is adapting your extraction methods to meet the requirements of the robotic liquid handling system. In this case, failure may be due to something as simple as the plastics used in your labware rather than the sophistication of your robotics. Developing effective automated systems can be a steep learning curve, and failure is expensive!

Q: You mentioned that adapting your extraction methods to meet the requirements of the robotic liquid handling system is a major challenge you face with your automated systems. How are you dealing with that challenge?

A: It is a research and development problem, and even we don’t know if we will find all the answers yet. Fortunately, RASL is one of the few drug testing laboratories in Australia that can still afford to have a capable method development capability. So strong investment in method development is the key way we’re tackling this challenge.

Q: What important trends do you think your lab will see in automation in the future? Where do things seem to be heading?

A: I think we will see significant automation of the drug testing industry in the next five years, but this is probably more a reflection of the low level of automation that currently exists. Compared to pathology laboratories, drug testing methods are currently labor-intensive. This is partly due to low investment in automated technology but mainly due to the challenges of translating existing methods to automatable formats. Most of the existing drug testing methods in racing laboratories incorporate labor-intensive steps such as pH adjustment and are usually performed in relatively large volumes in glass tubes and reaction vessels. Once the methods have been streamlined, miniaturized, and implemented in a plate format that is compatible with organic solvents and “sticky” drug molecules, I expect we will see greater opportunities for automation.

Q: What advice would you have for other lab managers or professionals who are thinking of going automated in their analytical labs?

A: I think the secret to automation success is two-fold. First, know your extraction method really well and think about how you would perform it from a robot’s perspective. The method has to be automatable and no robot will be as perceptive or responsive to variations in the process as a human operator. Second, be the master of your robot. Vendor companies will provide programming support, but to guarantee success you need at least one staff member who is capable of programming the instrument. Vendors may be experts at programming, but they are unlikely to know your process as intimately as you do.