LabAutomation Attracts More Exhibitors

As one of the first instrument shows to test the trade show environment in a new year and an increasingly uncertain economy, LabAutomation2009 showed that optimism about the instrument market remains intact. The annual conference and exhibit that showcases laboratory automation systems and associated products took place January 24–28 in Palm Springs, California.

Attendance was down 10.2% from 2008 (see IBO 1/31/08) as the final tally put the total number of participants at less than 450. However, the number of exhibitors rose 3.2% to 250. The exhibit floor was fairly busy on Monday and several presentations were standing-room only. Agilent, Beckman Coulter, Hamilton, PerkinElmer and Tecan each had a sizable presence at the conference, in terms of both sponsorship and booth space.

Smaller vendors also made up a good portion of exhibitors and presentations, as has traditionally been the case at the show. According to the Association for Laboratory Automation, the exhibit featured 45 first-time exhibitors, including Festo, GenVault, Invitrogen (Life Technologies), Labtronics and Panomics (Affymetrix).

A highlight of the show was the number of new products on display. LabAutomation continues to be an important forum for product debuts, especially microplate readers and liquid handlers. BioTek introduced the Synergy Mx Multi-Mode Microplate Reader, a monochromator-based reader and the fourth in its Synergy line. Designed for core labs and other labs that need flexibility, the system is priced $15,000–$50,000, depending on configuration. Shipments begin in March. BioTek also launched the EL406 1536-Well Microplate Washer Dispenser, featuring three reagent dispensers.

BMG Labtech debuted the PHERAstar FS multidetection microplate reader, which is designed for high-throughput screening. The system features a modular optical system and filter-based and UV-Vis spectrometry detection.

Beckman Coulter displayed the cartridge-based PARADIGM Detection Platform multimode reader. Currently, 14 detection cartridges, which house the optics for specific reagents, are available. According to the company, four new cartridges are scheduled to be released this year, including those for Invitrogen’s LanthaScreen TR-FRET (time resolved-fluorescence resonance energy transfer) assay, PerkinElmer’s AlphaScreen assay and Promega’s MultiTox-Fluor multiplex cytotoxicity assay.

At the show, Caliper Life Technologies launched the Zephyr Genomics Workstation, a liquid handler for molecular biology applications. To accommodate specific applications and increase ease of use, the system is equipped with 10 preinstalled methods for reagent kits. According to Caliper, 30 methods will be available by year end. Pricing starts at $60,000.

Labcyte, the maker of acoustic droplet ejection technology that eliminates the use of pipette tips, introduced its first product resulting from its acquisition of Deerac last year (see IBO 1/31/08). The Deerac Q integrates Deerac’s low-volume dispensing technology and a 96-channel pipettor with disposable tips. The new configuration allows for a greater range of applications, as Deerac’s technology can now be directly used for assays that require disposable tips, such as RNA or DNA transfer or PCR assay assembly for SNP genotyping. Labcyte also released the Intellectual Scheduler for its POD 810 Plate Assembler. At its press conference, the company explained that the software is designed to make the system easier to integrate with existing workflows. Wizard-based guidance and application protocols replace the need for programming.

Other companies highlighting acquisitions were Agilent Technologies and QIAGEN. Agilent held a press conference and introduced Agilent Automation Solutions, the new name for the Velocity11 division. Velocity11 will now be the brand name. Nick Roelofs, PhD, vice president and general manager of Agilent’s Life Sciences Solutions Unit, highlighted Agilent’s workflow-based approach to life science and its emphasis on open systems, so that it will configure an automation system that features any vendor’s equipment. He also stated that Agilent is considering moving the manufacture of some Velocity11 products to Singapore and that the companies’ sales channels have merged.

For the Velocity11 BioCel System, Agilent launched the Direct Drive Robot, a robot arm specifically designed for laboratory research applications. Features include one-touch teaching, gripping in portrait or landscape orientation, and infinitely rotating joints. Agilent also announced the release of the VWorks automation software, which replaces Velocity11’s three software platforms. As an example of applying Agilent’s automation platform to its other products, the company cited the automation of the Stratagene Absolutely 96 Microprep kit using the Bravo liquid handler.

At its press conference, QIAGEN called itself a “one-stop shop for automating laboratory workflows.” Konstantin Lutze, director of R&D, noted how the company’s instrument sales, which make up 10% of revenues, drive 30% of its consumables revenues. QIAGEN introduced the Rotor-Gene Q and QIAgility, two products originally developed by Corbett Life Sciences, which QIAGEN acquired last year (see IBO 7/15/08). The Rotor-Gene Q is a rotary-based thermal cycler, which continuously spins samples, eliminating positional effects and well-to-well variation. Applications include real-time metabolic analyses, protein melt analysis and high-resolution melting. The QIAgility automates real time PCR set-up and can be used for normalization of sample concentration and the set-up of quantification standards. QIAGEN also introduced the EZ1 Advanced XL workstation for the purification of 1–14 samples. Later this year, QIAGEN plans to introduce the QIAGEN QIAsymphony AS for assay set-up.

As with last year, automation for cell culturing and cell analysis was a major product trend. Hamilton introduced the BioLevitator 3-D Cell Culture System. The system replaces the use of incubators, centrifuges and T-flasks. Utilizing Global Cell Solutions’ bead-based Global Eukaroyotic Microcarrier (GEM) technology, the BioLevitator grows the cells in four independently controlled 50 mL test tubes. GEM allows for more efficient cell manipulation and an environment that more closely mirrors the development of cells in vivo. Priced at around $35,000, the system targets applications for high-volume cell lines and for difficult to culture cell lines.

The Automation Partnership (TAP) introduced the CellCelector, an automated stem cell picker made by Aviso GmbH that TAP is exclusively distributing in the US and Canada. Designed for basic research applications at a price of $250,000, the CellCelector automates the scanning, analysis and picking of stem cells. The system includes a deck tray for up to six microwell plates or tube racks, an Olympus microscope and imaging software, and robotic picking arm.

Fluxion Biosciences introduced the IonFlux-HT and IonFlux-16 Automated Patch Clamp Systems for screening ion channels, which utilizes the company’s miroplate-based microfluidics technology. By eliminating the costs of liquid handling and making the process faster and easier, the system is designed to enable mid-sized labs to automate patch clamping and to increase the use of patch clamping for primary screens, according to the company. A 96-well plate version will begin shipping mid-year and a 384-well plate version will be released later this year.

The definition of laboratory automation has expanded to include microfluidic systems as well as informatics products. Sciformatix introduced the SciLIMS samples and storage management system (SSM). Utilizing a software as service system (SaaS), in which all the installation and downloading is done off-site with a secure connection, SciLIMS SSM is a management system for containers, samples and storage for labs with less than 50 people. Sciformatix told IBO that SciLIMS allows an easy to use, flexible and cost effective LIMS solution for smaller labs. The system will be available next month at prices starting at $50 per month.

Other companies displayed products that are not considered lab automation products, speaking to the wider appeal of the show as a platform for reaching pharmaceutical and academic customers. Miltenyi Biotech showcased its new MACSQuant Analyzer, the company’s first flow cytometer. The compact and colorful instrument features three lasers and a touch-screen interface. It performs absolute cell counting and can do pre-enrichment of rare cells by adding the MACS Cell Enrichment Unit. Mettler-Toledo showed the QUANTOS Dosing System for measuring powders for pharmaceutical testing applications. The system utilizes a self-contained vessel with a disposable dosing head to allow more accurate weighing of the sample. It can dispense quantities between 1 mg and 250 m.

The conference featured 100 presentations. Among the most crowded talks that IBO attended was a presentation by Bernhard Becker of the Technische Universitaet Muenchen entitled “Automated High Content Screening Platform Using Living Cell” and the presentation entitled “Application of Label-Free Cell-Based Assay in Lead Generation” by Hong Xin of Johnson & Johnson. Next year, LabAutomation will be held January 23–27, 2010, in Palm Springs.

Chart: LabAutomation Participants


2005 4805

2006 4200

2007 4600

2008 4670

2009 4237

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