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Three Cornerstones of Cutting-Edge Microplate Reader Software

Intuitive use, data visualization, and customization are vital components for innovative microplate reading 

YoungMee Yoon

YoungMee Yoon leads the Bioresearch Field Applications Scientist team at Molecular Devices. She’s passionate about helping customers accelerate their research through advanced microplate reader technology. She began her career in...

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Microplate readers are foundational instruments for quantitative life science applications, from protein quantitation to biomarker discovery and drug evaluation. Their high-throughput capabilities allow researchers to detect and analyze hundreds of samples rapidly. Owing to their various detection modes, such as absorbance, fluorescence, and luminescence, microplate readers can be employed in several quantitative methods, from ELISA to cell viability assays.

While the market offers a wide range of microplate reader technologies, it is essential to look at a reader’s capabilities as well as the experience of the team behind it. However, one of the most important, often overlooked elements to consider when purchasing a microplate reader is the data acquisition and analysis software that powers them.

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Why software matters for timely and reproducible analysis

Microplate reader software is the key to turning raw data into interpretable datasets. When a microplate reader does not come with built-in data analysis software, researchers have to manually extract raw data into third-party platforms or even Excel to create data analysis macro reports, a time-consuming and complicated process. Consequently, a small syntax error can lead to devastating outcomes, from manufacturing defects to delays in the market.

Another common challenge cited by some in the scientific community is difficult-to-use, built-in software due to complex user interfaces, adding to the burden by requiring extensive training to ensure accurate data analysis.

Small-scale academic researchers might not be burdened by these hurdles, but this is not the case for biotechnology and pharmaceutical laboratories having to demonstrate FDA compliance before their therapeutics can be mass-produced and distributed. Microplate reader-mediated assay reports must be reproducible, traceable, transparent, and concise for companies seeking FDA approval.

Overall, best-in-class software helps accelerate, simplify, and scale up microplate reader data while converting it into a format presentable for GxP compliance. Therefore, research facilities working with large sample volumes, running multiparametric analysis, and seeking FDA approval must invest in microplate readers with cutting-edge software.

User-friendliness, visualization, and customization: the three cornerstones of software

One of the most important elements of cutting-edge microplate reader software is a user-friendly interface. Customers using poorly designed software often complain about laggy interfaces, cluttered menus and tabs, and overly technical language. Additionally, as mentioned before, some microplate readers feature two different programs for data acquisition and analysis, meaning that the researcher has to keep alternating between two interfaces. On the other hand, well-designed software gathers the acquisition and analysis aspects under one umbrella for a seamless transition between the two functions. It also features intuitive icons and menus that offer a concise description of the function of each item. Furthermore, the software guides researchers throughout assay preparation by presenting the necessary settings in a logical workflow. Users can complete the setup with minimal clicks instead of navigating multiple menus. Thus, a user-friendly interface grants researchers a smooth experience that yields rapid and quantitative data. Its self-explanatory nature and well-equipped data analysis tools quell any concerns about lengthy software training, so new users can spend less time learning software and more time on research.

The next determining factor for high-quality software is its data visualization tools. The raw data from a microplate reader consists of hundreds of numerical readouts that are difficult to interpret intuitively, especially when working with 384-well plates and measuring multiple parameters. In contrast, visual data analytics features, such as 3D graphs and color maps, help users uncover the overall trends across the wells. Although one can generate such visuals via Excel and other third-party platforms, it is time-consuming and error-prone. In contrast, the ideal software features data visualization tools that automatically generate 3D graphs and color maps, depicting the distribution of readouts such as optical density or relative fluorescence and luminescence units across the plate. Consequently, it significantly reduces the time needed for visual analytics and eliminates potential errors occurring while transferring raw data into another platform.

Customization is another necessary software feature in microplate readers employed for a great variety of assays, from ELISA and nucleic acid quantification to cell viability and proliferation assays. Depending on the assay, experimental conditions, and protocols, the researcher may want to perform a specific calculation not available in the software's function database. In that case, the ideal software would give users the opportunity to add their custom formulas and algorithms. More importantly, the formula space would allow not only simple mathematical operations but also conditional statements to categorize wells based on user-determined criteria. Much like the previous features, customization saves researchers tremendous time by performing complex analysis seamlessly inside the software.

The importance of GxP compliance in microplate reader software

The features listed above are particularly critical for GxP compliance since the entire workflow, inputs, outputs, and analysis criteria can be accessed via the same platform, demonstrating consistency. Nevertheless, regulatory agencies may want to see audit trails for actions the users take while working with the software and the electronic data files they generate, in addition to the finalized presentation of the results. In doing that, they ensure that the company is transparent about the drug discovery and testing processes. While it is possible to transfer information from microplate readers to external analysis software, this method is error-prone, open to manipulation, and unreliable. That's why regulated labs must invest in cutting-edge microplate reader software with built-in GxP functionalities, enabling the tracking of captured data, disclosing the date of entry, and identifying the users. To support regulatory compliance, a single program that can generate secure electronic records with reporting capability in a secure database would be a solution worth considering. In addition to transparency, GxP-oriented software is essential for data integrity. A password-based security system can protect data entries from one user against accidental modifications from other users.

What the future holds for microplate reader software

Microplate reader software with a user-friendly interface, data visualization, customization options, and GxP tools offer several advantages to researchers in terms of time, data integrity, the quality of analysis, and regulatory compliance. With emerging research areas, increasing assay complexity, and customer feedback, microplate reader software can be optimized further. More recently, customers have been interested in adapting new assay kit releases to their microplate reader workflows; however, they are unsure about the correct protocol to implement. This points to the importance of rigorous software maintenance, whereby developers constantly update their software upon new assay releases. In a more ideal version of the software, new assay protocols could even be automatically uploaded into the system. Furthermore, a protocol pool can be established, where users upload in-house protocols with access rights to all the users of the software across different laboratories. With sufficient budget and expertise, the improvements in microplate reader technology will champion standardized drug discovery efforts. Overall, biotechnology companies must prioritize microplate reader software capabilities to adapt to increasing research complexity and regulatory demands.