LabAutomation2008: Automation Spreads

Stormy weather and difficult travel conditions delayed some weekend travelers to the tenth annual LabAutomation conference, which took place January 26–30 at the Palm Springs Convention Center in Palm Springs, California. However, clearer skies prevailed on Monday, the first day of the conference’s scientific program and first full day of the exhibition. The Association for Laboratory Automation (ALA) reported that 4,670 individuals registered for the conference, on par with 2007, while the number of exhibitors jumped 12% to 242.

Visitors were greeted with a wide array of new products and a diverse scientific program, which mainly focused on downstream applications of automation, data integration through informatics, advances in nano and microscale technology, and cell-based and ADME/tox screening. Likewise, the exhibit hosted a lab automation technology and informatics vendors and OEM providers, with a good mix of large-, medium- and small-sized companies. Flexibility remained a key product trend at the show, including the use of vendor-neutral solutions and customized solutions to meet laboratories’ needs.

The application of automated techniques to a diverse set of workflows was illustrated by sessions devoted to high-throughput MS, high-throughput crystal form discovery and process analytical technologies. In the presentation, “Rapid Assessment of Compound Purity in an Early Drug Discovery Environment by Fast LC/MS,” Amgen’s John W. Eschelbach discussed the development of a measurement platform for compound purity. Instrumentation challenges included the compromise between LC injection times and injection carry over, and software reliability for the integration of narrow peaks.

Major product introductions were announced by PerkinElmer, QIAGEN, Tecan and Thermo Fisher Scientific at the show. QIAGEN launched the QIAsymphony SP automated sample purification platform for medium- to high-throughput labs. Targeted primarily at the human diagnostics market and priced at $75,000, the system can process 1–96 samples and offers in-process reloading. In 2009, the company plans to release an automated assay set-up module. QIAGEN also showed a rebranded version of eGene’s HDA-GT12, now known as the Qiaxcel, for slab gel preparation and analysis using capillary electrophoresis. It is priced at $28,000.

Tecan introduced its latest high-end microplate reader, the monochromator-based Infinite M1000 multimode reader, featuring a module enabling up to two injections and new software. Tecan also introduced the Infinite 200 NanoQuant absorbance reader, available with either monochromators or filters, for the detecting DNA concentrations down to one ng per µL, and the NanoQuant Plate for the simultaneous measurement of 16 samples.

In addition to Tecan’s product introductions, other new microplate readers made their debut at LabAutomation2008. Biotek displayed its Synergy 4 Multi-Mode Microplate reader, which began shipping in September 2007, noting that it is the only microplate reader that offers both monochromator-based and filter-based fluorescence detection systems in the reader. The company highlighted the systems new AlphaScreen mode for reading molecules labeled with PerkinElmer’s AlphaScreen screening technology. The Synergy 4 is priced at $65,000. Introducing a similar product but at the higher end of the market, PerkinElmer introduced the monochromator option for its EnVision Microplate Reader, available with an absorbance or a florescence intensity monochromator. The company also released a compact version of its LumiLux Cellular Screening Platform, the LumiLux CS Cellular Luminescence platform.

Thermo Fisher Scientific introduced the KingFisher Flex magnetic particle processor, which adds a 24-well magnetic head to the KingFisher96 for nucleic acid separation, enabling the processing of sample volumes of 20–5000 µL. The system is scheduled to begin shipping in April. Thermo also introduced the Thermo Scientific F5 six-axis articulated robot, the result of a joint development agreement with FANUC Robotics America. As for software, Thermo Fisher Scientific launched its Momentum laboratory automation software for operating and storing data from multiple workflows and multiple vendors’ instruments. It features an open topology to allow communication with instrumentation software, supports robot and robotless instrumentation, such as liquid handlers, and features plug-in architecture. Initially, the software will address the drug discovery and development applications.

Along the same lines, Symyx Technologies showcased its Symyx Automation Studio for the control of multiple laboratory instruments. Based upon Symyx’s Epoch and Impressionist software, the software integrates various laboratory equipment from more than 50 vendors, including liquid handlers, powder dispensing, chromatography and spectroscopy systems. Symyx also showed its Screening Pressure Reactor for screening of catalysts and catalytic processes.

Another major software offering to make its debut at LabAutomation this year was Advanced Chemistry Development’s (ACD/Labs) ACD/Analytical Automation Suite, a modular software package for processing and interpreting spectral and chromatographic data. The company emphasized the ability of its software to provide structural analysis. Software applications include structural fidelity and purity analysis in high-throughput labs, compound library degradation assessment using NMR and the development of chromatography methods

Both PerkinElmer and Caliper Life Sciences launched new consulting and service offerings at the show. PerkinElmer’s Integrative Solutions Services will assist in the development of applications, assays, integration and engineering. Caliper introduced the Automation, Consulting, Engineering and Services business (ACES) for the development of customized, multivendor automation solutions. The ACES approach features the Ensemble integrated systems, which will consist of new instruments from multiple vendors, while the Reprise integrated systems will consist of repurposed instruments.

As usual, LabAutomation’s exhibition floor was well stocked with liquid handlers. LabCyte launched the Echo 520 Liquid Handler, which expands its product line based on acoustic droplet ejection products to medium-throughput labs, including ADME/tox and assay development labs. LabCyte also showed the POD 810 plate assembler with a capacity of 189 microplates. Other new liquid handlers making their debut on the exhibit floor included Formulatrix’s Formulator, which the company called the fastest liquid handler on the market. The compact system utilizes microfluidic microplates for parallel dispensing of liquids in volume as low as 200 µL with no upper volume limit. Other features include the ability to dispense both viscous and nonviscous liquids, self-cleaning and the dispensing of 100 µL of three ingredients onto a 96-well grid in 60 seconds. Current application includes crystallography screening and cellular interaction assays. The Forumulator, QIAGEN’s QIAsymphony SP and Viaflo’s Vision Pipettors were recipients on ALA’s New Product Awards.

There were numerous products on the exhibit floor utilizing microfluidic technology, particularly for use with cell-based assays. Fluxion Bioscience’s BioFlux 200 System features a microfluidic system mounted to a well plate for off-chip valve control. The system is optimized for live cell imaging assays for cell adhesion experiments. Nanopoint launched the cellTRAY Fluidics system for multiday live cell studies and the cellTRAY Dish. Cellix introduced the VenaFlux microfluidic system for measurement of cell behavior in a system that simulates human capillaries.

Beckman Coulter also highlighted its products for cell analysis, displaying a fully automated workflow for cell culture applications utilizing the company’s Vi-Cell XR Analyzer and Quanta SC MPL flow cytometer, as well as its BioRAPTR noncontact dispenser, which is well suited for cell dispensing, according to the company. The company also announced that Cisbio’s certification of its homogenous time-resolved fluorescence assay on its Paradigm multimode reader, resulting in a new HTRF cartridge. Cisbio is Beckman Coulter’s first automation partner for GPCR assays.

Other notable product introductions included MatriCal’s Squirt Multiformat Microplate Washer. Based on technology licensed from Nuvogen, the Squirt is a probe-less system that essentially flips the microplates and sprays them. The system does not have to be adjusted to different sized plates and will begin shipping within a few months. ArrayIt introduced the SpotBot Turbo Microarray, adding a midrange benchtop microarray to its product line. The system can prepare 168 substrate slides and is priced starting at $60,000.

ARTEL introduced new features for its MVS Multichannel Verification System for validating and documenting the performance of automated liquid handlers. The new features increase ease of use, enabling the automated measurement of dispensed volumes in multiple microplates and preprogrammed methods. At its booth, ARTEL showed a Tecan Freedom EVO liquid handling system configured for automated quality control for the drug discovery process.

LabAutomation2008 marked the debut of Velocity11 as “an Agilent Technology company.” In a press conference, Agilent emphasized it will maintain Velocity11’s innovative culture and its collaborations with other vendors. Agilent also stated that Velocity11’s automation expertise would be applied to selected product lines throughout its life science and chemical analysis businesses. The newly formed Digilab Genomic Solutions was also present at the show and told IBO it will introduce the ProPrep II shortly. Another company discussing an upcoming product was Kalypsys, which in partnership with Panasonic, will debut modular lab automation workstations at April’s Society for Biomolecular Sciences’ Conference. LabAutomation2009 will be held January 24–28 in Palm Springs.

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