The new normal?

Carola Schmidt examines whether automation is now standard within the pharmaceutical and diagnostics industries.

Laboratory automation began in the 1950s and the first automated instrument, the Autoanalyzer I, used continuous flow analysis (CFA) to considerably increase the instrument throughput, exceeding the manual processes of the time. With time, these innovations have drastically increased, and each new generation of instruments elevates the volume of work and menu of assays, while continuously maintaining accuracy – an aspect that became critical during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Lab automation during the pandemic defined a ‘new normal’ for scientists and lab technicians who had to rely on automated data management systems for accurate reporting and traceability of the samples. A 2021 study entitled High-speed large-scale automated isolation of SARS-CoV-2 from clinical samples using miniaturised co-culture coupled to high-content screening showed that automation enabled rapid and accurate testing with minimal human contact, thereby reducing the risk of contamination and spread of the infection among lab personnel.

Wide-reaching benefits

However, the benefits of automation extend beyond diagnostics, and in recent years, automation is being implemented in manufacturing cell and gene therapies and developing both small and large-molecule products. Advancements in automated fluid handling systems have proven to increase efficiency and foster greater speeds and reproducibility in the development of drug candidates and chemical probes for biological systems.

They also enable a streamlined screening procedure, substantially increasing throughput and providing consistency and dependability. Additionally, innovations such as the PKeye mobile operations monitor, are enabling true walk-away automation while using liquid handlers. The PKeye monitor includes a set of cameras mounted on the instrument, in addition to cloud-based software that monitors the instrument status and logs files in real time. Any alert triggered during the process is passed up to the secure cloud-based website controlled by the lab manager and then passed down to the lab technician’s cell phone. This process allows the lab technician to remain away from the instrument while running and still get notified when manual intervention is needed.

Integrated automation

However, automation can’t function in isolation. True automation in laboratory workflows requires seamless integration of associated software, reagents, consumables and the relevant instrumentation technology – integrated automation that connects multiple steps in the lab’s workflow, enables a reduction in manual workload and frees up time for the scientists to focus on research and innovation.

Post-pandemic mindset

In the post-pandemic era, rising healthcare costs and an increased focus on developing advanced medicines will continue to increase reliance on automation in drug discovery and development. However, some challenges need to be addressed before we can fully embrace automation. The fear of change and loss of control over the results remains a hurdle that first need to be considered before we get into the costs involved in setting up automated systems.

A mindset shift is essential for people to fully understand and adapt to automated tools and instruments. With this shift, we need to consider a number of factors, such as training, a reassurance that automation will not make the staff redundant but will only help repurpose their efforts towards much-needed areas of research and innovation, and efficient protocols for query resolution. There also needs to be continuous communication around how the benefits vastly outweigh the risks in the form of a reduction in human-associated errors and increased efficiency.

Collaboration is key

Another aspect critical to automation is collaboration. The concept of collaboration goes beyond merely offering automated services and tools but also requires growing with the evolution of a company or lab to better meet their needs. For instance, Revvity acquired Oxford Immunotec, which plays a global role in fighting tuberculosis. This enabled the company to utilise Revvity’s automation and commercial channel access to bring tuberculosis testing to more people around the world. We need to see more such collaborations to help us address
the rising healthcare challenges.

Automation and data management make room for innovations, bringing life-saving therapies to people at a rapid rate, without compromising on quality or accuracy, and we are only just scratching the surface.

Carola Schmidt is general manager of automated robotic solutions at Revvity

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