If there’s one thing the COVID pandemic has taught us, it’s that laboratories have a huge demand for high sample throughput rates. Even when a laboratory has highly qualified staff, this demand can no longer be met. There’s no getting around the automation of laboratory processes. That is why Dutch company MolGen has developed the PurePrep TTR, which can prepare 320 patient samples per hour for further molecular processing. And they use laboratory-specific automation technology from Festo.
During the COVID pandemic, laboratories were set up everywhere because high sample throughput rates were absolutely essential. “This is where MolGen got involved, and in a very short time, within 2 to 3 years, we've grown from five to more than 130 employees”, explains Kruize, Member or the Management Board at MolGen and one of the three founders of the company, referring to subsidiaries in the Netherlands as well as in the UK and the US.
“When we founded MolGen, our primary business area was high sample throughput rates in genetic engineering laboratories for animals and plants. We had a lot of knowledge about the chemicals needed for this", explains Kruize.
Recent developments include the handling unit PurePrep TTR. It is used for automated handling of liquids at high throughput rates by quickly, accurately and reliably transferring them from sample vials to microwell plates. “The automated PurePrep TTR has a throughput rate of 320 samples per hour”, says Kruize. Even laboratory assistants who are well-trained and have lots of professional experience are unable to match this tremendous throughput rate”, he adds.
Laboratory staff for more demanding tasks
Despite the expert skills of trained laboratory staff, errors can still occur and lead to contamination. The individual steps of gripping a sample, unscrewing the cap, putting the cap down, removing the liquid with a pipette and transferring it to a microwell plate are time-consuming and cumbersome. The sample vials as well as the plates are labelled with barcodes that are read by scanners in order to monitor and track the samples throughout the entire work process. “By automating these process steps, we can use our highly qualified laboratory staff much more effectively for more demanding tasks, such as analysing test results”.
“I’ve been working together with Festo for ten years, especially with Festo’s national company in the Netherlands”, reports the Member of the MolGen Management Board. He describes this collaboration as exceptional, because Festo is always prepared to do more than just sell standard products. “Their innovation unit caters to our requirements and provides us with modules for pilot projects. That was the case with the controller CPX-E and now again with the "magic box", as we call it – the decentralised pressure and vacuum generator PGVA”, says Kruize and adds: “We were among the first, maybe even the very first, to use it.”
Decentralised pressure and vacuum supply
“It is more or less hidden in the machine housing”, explains Bert Baas, Dutch sales engineer for laboratory automation at Festo. The PGVA integrates compressor, air preparation including filter system, reservoir and electronic pressure and vacuum control in the smallest of spaces. “In order to meet the huge demand during the COVID pandemic, we supplied MolGen with the pressure and vacuum generator while it was still in the technical approval phase”, reports Baas.
“The PGVA shows how passionate the various teams at Festo always are about automation, and that results in successful collaborative solutions for us. This inspires confidence in their ability to produce prototypes and systems much faster and more flexibly than the competition”, concludes the Member of the MolGen Management Board.
Pipetting head DHOE is used for the pipetting process. It can transport extremely small pipetting volumes of down to 1 µl with outstanding precision. With an open pipetting system and pipetting head DHOE for the easy transport of liquids, it is possible to configure the most important pipetting functions based on requirements, and to expand them flexibly – the system is also compatible with large pipette tips. Thanks to its outstanding chemical resistance, the pipetting head can be used for a wide range of liquids with varying viscosities.
“The pipetting process can be adjusted very precisely thanks to the pressure-controlled operating principle; this isn’t possible with a syringe-based system. The expertise is clearly in liquid level detection”, says laboratory automation specialist Kruize enthusiastically.
Sample handling with precise level detection
The first robot arm of the PurePrep TTR, which is equipped with two SCARA robots, uses an electric gripper to pick up a sample vial by the cap and places it in a position where the cap can be removed. Once it's been opened, the second robot arm uses pipetting head DHOE to transport the liquid from the sample vial to the microwell plate. “The pipetting system is even capable of precisely determining the liquid level in a sample vial by using high-precision pressure and vacuum adjustment via the PGVA”, explains Bastiaan Ebbelaar, application specialist at MolGen. For Ebbelaar, level detection is the system’s most fascinating feature. At the same time as liquid handling, the first robot arm closes the open sample vial and returns it to the rack. Then it continues with the next sample vial.
MolGen is a global provider of complete solutions for DNA/RNA technology with hardware, reagents, consumables, software and services for human and animal diagnostics, agriculture and the biotech industry. The company's automation solutions are developed to meet the specific needs of customers and always take into account the latest state-of-the-art technology in life sciences.