How will laboratory automation develop in the future? What challenges need to be tackled, what are the requirements of laboratory automation users and how can automation technology contribute to making laboratory processes more efficient and more reliable? These and many other questions were discussed in detail at the “Lab Automation Symposium” which was jointly organised by BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg and Festo and held on 20th September 2012.
Dr. Ulrich Stoll, vice chairman of the Festo supervisory board and nephew of Festo founder Gottlieb Stoll, welcomed the guests to the one-day meeting. “Having worked for a couple of years in an American biotech company, I know what it means to have access to effective laboratory automation systems,” Stoll said. On behalf of the Baden-Württemberg government, Günther Leßnerkraus conveyed the government’s greetings and pointed out how much he appreciates Festo AG and its work in the field of laboratory automation. “During my visits to many laboratories I regularly find that a lot of work still needs to be done manually and that there is huge potential for introducing automation solutions.”
Expert talks and the panel discussion addressed the major issues that often come up in discussion on concepts relating to automation in human and molecular diagnostics: sample preparation, cell cultivation, biostabilisation, biobanking and long-term archiving.
Professor Michael Heller, University of California San Diego, presented a novel dielectrophoretic method which enables molecules, particles and even cells/bacteria to be directly isolated and detected from liquids such as whole blood on a microarray device. The samples can be used directly for further analysis, for example using PCR and sequencing. Heller highlighted that in addition to isolating molecules from complex samples, the method is also suitable as a “warning system” for the early diagnosis of cancer. This involves determining the concentration of cell-free circulating DNA, usually elevated in cancer patients, directly from blood.
Dr. Rolf Müller, Biomatrica, gave an impressive presentation on a method that enables the energy-saving archiving of samples at room temperature. Using specific biomolecules, developed based on bionic findings, the innovative method allows nucleic acids from biological samples such as saliva, blood and tissue to be stabilised immediately after sampling and stored at room temperature. Müller envisages that in future it will also be possible to stabilise enzymes in a similar way. “By learning from nature how to conserve biological material without the need for cooling, we are able to achieve a paradigm change in the storage of biological samples. As we do not need to maintain a cold chain during transport and storage, the method also helps to considerably reduce the emission of carbon dioxide,” said Müller referring to the future potential of the method. In the next talk, Dr. Thomas Schreiber from Greiner BioOne reported on the requirements resulting from the growing trend towards automation on innovative consumables used for cell cultivation.
Dr. Thomas Joos, NMI Reutlingen, emphasised in his talk that ongoing methodological developments need to be able to keep up with growing automation in order to enable researchers to work efficiently. “At present, the availability of antibodies that are suitable for our approaches represent a major bottleneck in this respect,” said Joos, who works on the analysis of proteins/biomarkers using antibody-based detection systems. The next talk, given by Professor Berthold Huppertz, presented the Biobank Graz (Austria) – the largest biobank in Europe – and its activities in the field of automation with regard to state-of-the-art archiving systems. He sent a clear message to the automation industry: “Identifying the areas where automation is necessary and worthwhile is absolutely crucial.”
The series of talks were concluded by Professor Albrecht Brandenburg (Fraunhofer IPM) and Dr. Wolfgang Gauchel (Festo) who presented their respective developments in the field of laboratory automation. The CellCultivator, developed by the Fraunhofer IPM and its partners, along with Festo’s LabFab are based on a flexible, modular automation system concept. Gauchel and Brandenburg emphasised that laboratories usually use two approaches – high-throughput approaches that enable researchers to handle large amounts of samples but offer little flexibility, and manual approaches which are only suitable for processing small amounts of sample. “We believe that future systems will be somewhere between the two. An automation system needs to be able to react flexibly to respective requirements, and non-specialists must be able to programme the system quickly and easily,” Gauchel pointed out.
In the afternoon, the 70 or so participants had the opportunity to visit Festo’s research and production facilities, or to participate in workshops using the World Café format to discuss future requirements on laboratory automation in a relaxed atmosphere. Coffee and lunch breaks offered participants ample opportunities for intensive scientific discussions and for making new contacts. Dr. Ralf Kindervater, CEO of BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH, led the programme throughout the day.