7 min readLab Automation – A European Perspective
Technological advancements in the field of robotics have provided researchers an opportunity to use industrial robots in their routine process. The increasing flexibility of robots coupled with the deluge of compounds prepared by combinatorial chemistry has brought about the new era of HTS.
HTS is the process of assaying a large number of potential effectors of biological activity against targets (a biological event), also called an assay. The four major steps involved in a typical assay are: sampling, sample dilution, parameter measurement and data handling (collection and analysis). Most laboratory robotic systems are employed to automate the sample dilution stage which is usually the most labour-intensive step of the analysis process. The primary goal of HTS is to accelerate the rate of screening compounds (potential drugs), by optimizing reagent transfer time and physical transfer of microplates and immediate collection/analysis of data.
Flexible robotic automation systems consist of a programmable robot that would facilitate microplate transport or sample vial pick and place between different workstations. The individual workstation mentioned can be liquid handling stations or microplate readers. These systems can be easily integrated with newer equipment that is added on further. On the other hand, dedicated robotic automation systems incorporate specialized robotic component, which serves as an integral component along with the other instrumentation. These robotic systems may be hard to reprogram and configure for different experiments. Hence, they are best used for complex high throughput experiments.
Essentially, laboratory robots have helped accelerate throughput through flexibility and capability of performing repetitive tasks, and thus enabling assay automation. Although there are incumbent issues with the robustness of assays post automation and unattended walkway time capabilities, which can now be monitored by liquid detection systems, isolation of the workstations and log files, robots have saved labour costs for repetitive tasks apart from providing better accuracy and productivity. These cost savings and efficiency translate to accelerated drug discovery.
Although the application of laboratory robotics is increasing, limitations including high capital cost, complexity of operation and connectivity issues between the robotic system and the data management and analysis system are hindering its implementation. Though the high capital cost is justified by increasing the throughput by accelerating compound screening and enabling scientists to utilize their tile more productively on evaluating data, planning new assays and on more innovative tasks rather than performing tedious, repetitive operations.
Microplate readers and detection systems:
Microplate reader is laboratory equipment utilized to detect biological and chemical changes in a microplate. Most of the end point information from biological assays are obtained as a function of their optical density and luminous intensity change at different wavelengths. Microplate readers are used to measure the same and numerically display the information obtained. Standard and blank measurements, in the microplate, are used to interpret the information thus collected. With the current focus on HTS based screening models, biological assays with decrease in assay time and more efficient means of detection are sought. Optical measurements provide the key to such time efficient and accurate information collection.
The most commonly used detection systems include: