Laboratories on the way to end-to-end automation

Robotics, artificial intelligence and automation technology boosted by pandemic

Question among laboratory automation experts: What would you automate first in the laboratory if you had only a small budget available? Answer: I would start where you can achieve the greatest success quickly. That is in replacing simple and time-consuming manual tasks in pipetting and dispensing with powerful automation solutions. This gives well-trained lab technicians more time for creative and more important activities.

This was the tip given by Andreas Traube from the Fraunhofer Institute in Stuttgart to Professor Michelangelo Canzoneri from Merck at the ELRIG December conference "Robotics and Automation" at the Festo TechnologyCenter in Esslingen near Stuttgart. More and more laboratory operators are recognising the advantages of automation in terms of speed, quality and efficiency. The best example of an automation solution: the PurePrep TTR and TTS handling systems for sample preparation of PCR tests, developed by the Dutch company MolGen.

Enormous throughput possible

PurePrep TTR and TTS automatically handle liquids at a throughput of 320 samples per hour by quickly, accurately and reliably transferring liquids from sample vials to deep well microtiter plates. "Multi-axis gantries and pipetting systems from our automation partners Festo and Synchron support us with reliable handling solutions," explains Niels Kruize, Managing Director of MolGen. According to Kruize, the enormous throughput could never be achieved with laboratory assistants, despite their good training and even with a lot of professional experience. Thanks to the automation of these process steps, the highly qualified laboratory staff could be much better used for more demanding tasks, such as analysing test results.

"While people around the world suffered in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic, we paradoxically benefitted from it. We owe the company's rise from a start-up with three employees in 2018 to a medium-sized equipment manufacturer with 135 employees and branches in the US and the UK to the immense demand for PCR tests. The high throughput of which could only be realised with automation technology," says Kruize. This growth shows how successful the automation of laboratory processes is.

200,000 PCR tests daily

The impetus for the new, state-of-the-art Rosalind Franklin Laboratory in the UK was similar. "The lab processes more than 200,000 COVID-19 samples every day to stop the spread of the virus. Part of the UKHSA's NHS testing and tracing network, the facility is the largest of its kind in Europe. It uses state-of-the-art technology to process even more tests," its director Dr Robert Howes enthuses about the enormous laboratory capacity. In the coming months, the facility will introduce the groundbreaking new genome test in order to quickly identify variants of concern and new mutations.

While automation is gaining ground in biology labs because of the Corona pandemic with its immense demand for PCR testing, it is still in its infancy in chemistry labs due to the higher complexity in terms of parameters such as temperature or pH levels. So far, automation has been limited to a few benchtop devices with little interlinking of process steps. However, leading pharmaceutical manufacturers are already working on solutions based on artificial intelligence.

Developing drugs in half the time

Lighthouse projects are AstraZeneca's iLAB in Gothenburg or Boehringer Ingelheim's Lab 4.0. Artificial intelligence (AI), automation and robotics are changing the way AstraZeneca discovers and develops new medicines. For example, small molecule drug discovery is being driven by multiple iterations of the DMTA cycle.

This involves designing entirely new molecules, producing them by chemical synthesis, testing them in a series of biological tests and analysing the improvements made before moving on to the next round of design. This lengthy and time-consuming process is greatly accelerated with AI, automation and robotics. "Our goal is to identify potential drug candidates in half the time it takes today," explains Dr Michael Kossenjans, head of iLAB at AstraZeneca in Gothenburg, Sweden.

In Boehringer Ingelheim's Lab 4.0, shorter cycle times and better quality data are to be achieved with the paperless lab concept. "We use augmented reality approaches such as Hololens or instructions on tablets to achieve assisted pipetting. Laboratory staff can be assisted with pipetting using modern AR software," says Dr Andreas Luippold, head of the Discovery Sciences Technologies research group at Boehringer Ingelheim, explaining this highly innovative approach to laboratory work.

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February 2023