No substitute for human brain, but robots bring the brawn

Two of CRL’s safety assessment sites are using cutting-edge robot technology to take the tedium out of bench work. The facilities in Reno, Nevada and Den Bosch, The Netherlands, have successfully integrated automation into multiple bioassay workflows, freeing researchers from considerable ‘grunt’ work. 

[See robots in action]

“The robots at CRL Nevada are used to perform ELISA [enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay] based immunoassays,” says Travis Davidson, team leader of automation in Reno. “Every day I work with the robot and the data it produces, optimizing the functionality to better improve their reliability, he adds.  

CRL Nevada’s equipment comes from Hamilton Robotics and can be designed to perform multiple, diverse tasks. One current application is running T-Cell Dependent Antibody Response (TDAR) ELISAs and Toxicokinetic/Pharmacokinetic ELISAs, which determine time-dependent immune response to drug dosage and trace drug concentration levels. These tests would normally take up to 10 hours of dedicated researchers time for each batch, significantly slowing down the drug development process. 

According to Davidson, the benefits of the robots are manifold. The labs can run far more samples without interruption, reduce the influence of human error, maintain good laboratory practice (GLP) through automated documentation, and even use less sample material. But likely the best benefit is to Nevada employees, whose time can be used for more complex, scientific and interesting tasks. 

“With the Hamilton systems, the technician now only has to prepare the platform for work with things like samples and reagents, then click a few buttons to tell the instrument specific analysis parameters, and the robot will complete the entire lab work,” says Davidson.

In Den Bosch, robots from Tecan Trading and Biotage are used to help process plasma, blood and urine samples. Unlike in Nevada, where the robots help run more tests, Den Bosch’s advantage comes mainly from reproducibility and a reduced error rates. With fewer tests having to be re-run, the facility saves time and sample material to increase efficiency.

The robots in Den Bosch help with two stages of the assay. First, and most critically, the Tecan robots are used for sample pipetting. Using what they call Liquid Level Detection, the robots are much better at determining a minimum sample size and sensing clots or air bubbles than human technicians, thus saving limited biological material. The Biotage robots then begin Solid Phase Extraction (SPE) processing and filtration before the remainder of the testing is finished by humans.

At our current level of technology, there is still no substitute for human ingenuity and creativity. However, in many technology and science industries, robots are becoming indispensable. Their value to labs increases every year, and CRL is determined to stay ahead of the curve in the robot revolution.