LabAutomation 2007: Closing the Loop

Palm Springs, California’s desert air and sunny days were once again a perfect background for the Association for Laboratory Automation’s (ALA) annual LabAutomation conference. Held January 28–31 and accompanied by a three-day exhibition, the conference drew 4,600 registrants, a 9% increase from last year (see IBO 1/31/06). However, the number of exhibitors fell 15% to 217. Companies not exhibiting this year included Berthold Technologies GmbH, Gilson, Pall Life Sciences and Whatman.

The conference kicked off with an opening keynote address by Norman Dovichi, Ph.D., of the University of Washington. He discussed his laboratory’s creation and use of a chemical cytometer for ultrasenstive analysis of single cells and its application to cancer prognosis. The talk illustrated an innovative application of laboratory automation and ultrasenstive techniques to patient sample testing. Five sessions, each with five themes, were spread out over the next two days. The Monday morning tracks drawing the most interest were “High-Throughput Technologies” and “Informatics.”

This year marked several firsts for the conference and exhibit. A new “Late Night with LRIG (Laboratory Robotics Interest Group)” Session held Monday night highlighted new products from 14 companies, both big and small. To nurture new companies, ALA created provided free booth space for eight start-up companies. The companies on “Innovation AveNEW,” as it was called, were microfluidics companies DiagnoSwiss, (the co-creator of Agilent’s 3100 OFFGEL fractionator), Cellis, genapta and Raindance Technologies, as well as software firm Ardenno, cell culture product provider CellCubed (formerly Global Cell Solutions), IonGate Biosciences GmbH, a maker of the label-free SURFE2R technology, and Sirius Automation.

New products were even more a focus of this year’s exhibit as ALA, taking a cue from Pittcon, launched a New Product Award designation. The Awards recognized products from QIAGEN NV, Symyx Technologies and Corning Life Sciences. At the show, QIAGEN launched the QIAcube platform for fully automated processing of the company’s spin column kits. Designed for labs with low to medium throughput needs, the QIAcube is priced at under $20,000 and will begin shipping in April. Over 100 protocols are available.

Symyx Technologies launched a one-license version of its Benchtop Systems, a liquid handling system that can run multiple experiments in parallel. Capable of dispensing solids, powders and liquids, the system features an integrated balance, chiller and deck filtration. Applications include crystallization and solubility. Corning Life Sciences’s Epic system, which was introduced last fall utilizes evanescent wave technology. Touted as the only instrument for high-throughput, label-free screening, the Epic uses standard 384-well microplates and can run both biochemical and cell-based assays. The system is priced starting at $400,000.

Beckman Coulter, Cybio AG and Thermo Fisher Scientific were among the companies that chose the show for major new product launches (see sidebar). The exhibit was also an opportunity for newly reconfigured companies, such as Thermo Fisher and SSi Robotics, to make their debut. For example, the Matrix PlateMate 2×3, formerly a product of Fisher Scientific’s Matrix Technologies business, now carried the Thermo Scientific name. Thermo Scientific officials told IBO that Thermo Fisher Scientific expects to introduce products integrating Thermo Electron and Fisher Scientific technologies as early as the second quarter. SSi Robotics, which was purchased by PaR Systems, a robotics and specialty equipment company, last summer (see IBO 9/30/06), introduced new workstations and benchtop systems and highlighted its expertise in tube-based automation systems. PerkinElmer also showcased its new cellular sciences emphasis at the show, noting that its recent acquisition of EuroScreen has given the company a sizable portfolio of kinase and GPCR assays. And Beckman Coulter showed off a rebranded BioRAPTR FRD, which it acquired from Aurora Discovery (see IBO 10/15/06).

The complexity of automated laboratory solutions and strain put upon them has long fed an adjacent market of niche companies providing solutions to ensure the proper operation of such solutions. Cerionx, which last year debuted its TipCharger system at the conference, returned this year to announce a distribution agreement with Tecan. Tecan will exclusively distribute the 8-TipCharge as well as sell the 384- and 1534-well systems in the biopharmaceutical market. TipCharge systems are optimized for Tecan liquid handling platforms and Tecan will provide customer support. TipCharger utilizes atmospheric pressure plasma at room temperature to clean and sterilize plastic pipette tips.

Another company serving the lab automation community is ARTEL, which provides calibration systems and services based on ratiometric photometry. At this year’s show, the company introduced an enhancement to its MVS system for the verification of serial dilution accuracy for automated liquid handlers as well as multichannel manual pipettes. The system measures dilution ratios in 96- and 384-well microplates for 10 nl to 200 ml volumes. The company also introduced its Liquid Handling Quality Assurance services for liquid handling verification of multiple vendors’ platforms.

Other news announced in conjunction with the conference was Roche Diagnostics’ entry into two agreements for automating its thermal cycler platform. Roche’s LightCycler 480 Real-Time PCR system will be offered with Caliper Life Sciences’ Twister III Microplate Handler under a co-marketing agreement. Roche also announced the Protedyne will integrate its Radius robotic system with the 480 system.

Like last year, the new products at this year’s show emphasized flexibility. Other buzz words on the floor included “closed-loop systems” and “application specific,” suggesting that vendors are meeting labs’ needs.

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