Automated Sample Preparation to Resolve Homogenizing Bottlenecks

Shorter product life cycles and rapidly expanding data processing capability are driving businesses to seek ever-faster methods of development. This trend is particularly evident in pharmaceutical product development, drug discovery, efficacy testing, and quality control. Here we see a growing number of smaller-volume samples being processed, which in turn is driving a need for automated solutions.

When large numbers of samples are processed for evaluation of some specific scientific purpose, those samples generally require multiple preparation and evaluation steps. This process becomes particularly challenging due to the nature of the specimen preparation and sample harvesting. When these samples involve animal tissue, the samples are generally harvested en masse, and then presented to the laboratory as a large body of work that must be completed as quickly as possible in order to avoid degradation of the tissue samples. This cycle usually begins with harvesting the samples and ultimately ends with a desired result, such as a liquid chromatography reading. In between those two endpoints are generally numerous sample handling and sample processing steps. Some of these may include weighing, reagent addition, pipetting, bar-code tracking, homogenization, centrifugation, and redistributing samples from 15-mL tubes into 96-well microplates.

This process is labor intensive and tedious, and presents the challenge of tracking and moving samples, often manually, along the processing chain. Within this chain one often finds significant processing bottlenecks that have not yielded readily to automation. In addition, sample contamination, along with cooling, and heating during processing are also often of primary concern.

A good first step toward resolving the homogenization bottleneck is the Omni Prep (Omni International, Kennesaw, GA), a device capable of homogenizing up to six samples at a time (1.5–50 mL processing tubes) or about 250 samples per hour. However, most users who choose this semiautomated homogenizing solution still require significant additional liquid handling and sample processing as part of the sample preparation process.

Figure 1 - Step-by-step process that currently occurs in laboratories. The LH96 takes each of these steps and automates the process.

Existing approaches to this sample handling challenge have generally been limited to automating various separate components of the processing chain, such as automated pipetting, sample weighing, and homogenization (see Figure 1).

Figure 2 - Features of the LH96 liquid handling robotic workstation.

The LH96 liquid handling robotic workstation (Omni International) integrates sample cooling, bar-code tracking, weighing, pipetting, and liquid transfer in tube sizes ranging from 1.5 mL to 50 mL (see Figure 2). The system is a truly flexible, space-efficient, cost-effective, sample processing robot that combines these various processing steps into one automated processing chain solution capable of processing at least 96 samples and up to 192 samples per operating cycle. “The question today’s laboratory manager asks is not simply how good the product is, but how well the system optimizes operations in a lab’s unique environment. Most laboratories find there are significant benefits gained from the implementation of automation, and those benefits are exponentially enhanced when the automation solution is effectively customized.”1

A primary enabling technology is the patented Omni Tip disposable rotor/stator homogenizing probe. Omni Tips eliminate the possibility of cross-contamination between samples and the time-consuming cleaning steps that are required when stainless steel generator probes are used. “In any experiment involving different treatment groups or varying starting material it is important to insure no crossover or contamination of sample material occurs.”2 The other required technologies, such as pipetting, liquid dispensing, weighing, bar-code reading, etc., largely exist, but require integration into the LH96 platform.

Using currently available robotic solutions, the scientist would need at least 6500 in.2 of bench space and would spend approximately $150,000 to own:

  1. A sample weighing station (79” × 31” × 22”)
  2. A homogenizing robot (60” × 36” × 33”)
  3. A pipetting/dispensing workstation (79” × 28” x 22”).

In addition, one or more technicians would be required to interface with the samples.

In contrast, the LH96 is about a third of the price and takes up less than 10% of the bench space. It features walkaway processing, lowers total processing time by more than 50%, reduces sample loss, eliminates possible cross-contamination, and fits readily into a laminar enclosure. Repetitive motion injury, tedium, and noise associated with current manual methods are also eliminated.

References

  1. Tufel, G. What can automation do for you? Clin. Lab Products. Feb 2008.
  2. Mace, B.E.; Sullivan, P.M. The use of steel homogenizer probe results in sample carryover contamination. Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC, 1997.

Mr. Jahn is President, Omni International, 935-C Cobb Place Blvd., Kennesaw, GA 30144, U.S.A.; tel.: 770-421-0058; e-mail: omni@omni-inc.com.

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