Low-Volume Liquid Handling

Automated liquid handling (ALH) is instrumental in drug discovery initiatives and has helped speed the workflow in life science research laboratories. Although growth in the ALH market is not what it used to be, the market continues to provide innovative advancements such as low-volume dispensing systems for key applications in drug discovery.

There are several advantages to using lower volumes, but the most important benefit may be the savings in cost due to decreased reagent use. The trend in the industry is to improve the cost per test by increasing throughput and using higher density microplates. While 96-well plates might be standard for most industries, drug discovery researchers demand much higher densities, making 384- and 1,536-well plate formats more common.

Liquid handlers that use syringe-based or positive displacement methods continue to be the workhorses of the ALH market. However, nontraditional methods such as acoustic waves and other noncontact technologies are becoming more significant. Acoustic wave technology is a noncontact method that uses ultrasonic energy to eject sub-nanoliter volumes of liquids from a microplate onto another microplate that is positioned upside down. Because of their low volume, the droplets will stick to the destination microplate due to surface tension. These systems have become very useful in compound library screening, well-plate reformatting and assay development.

Labcyte’s Echo 550 performs direct microplate-to-microplate transfers of droplets down to 2.5 nL. The system automatically determines the water content of dimethyl sulfoxide and the depth of fluid in each well, giving information about the quantity and quality of the source-plate samples.

EDC Biosystems offers the ATS-100 acoustic transfer system, which can transfer volumes from 1–250 nL with coefficients of variation (CV) lower than 10%. The system uses 384-, 1536- or 3456-well plates as a source and can dispense into or onto practically any target. The ATS-100 can be used to produce microarrays such as proteins, tissue or whole blood.

Other noncontact dispensing techniques include piezoelectric (inkjet printing technology) and solenoid-based technologies. Innovadyne uses a solenoid-dispensing technology featuring separate, isolated actuators for aspiration and syringes and microsolenoids for dispensing. This unique design provides high-precision liquid dispensing, even with difficult reagents such as beads, cells and slurries. Innovadyne’s entry-level Nanodrop I is an eight-channel pipetting instrument that dispenses reagents into 96-, 384- and 1536-well plate formats from 100 nL–40 μL, with CVs below 5%.

Demand for low-volume liquid handling systems is fueled mainly by high-throughput screening applications, but protein crystallization, molecular diagnostics and assay development are other growth engines.

Low-Volume Liquid Handling

at a Glance:

Leading Suppliers

• Labcyte

• EDC Biosystems

• Innovadyne

Largest Markets

• Pharmaceutical

• Biotech

• Contract Research

Instrument Cost

• $200,000–$350,000

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