Pipettes of the Future: Automation for Acceleration

insights from industryPiero Zucchelli & Nigel SkinnerCEO & Director of MarketingAndrew Alliance

An interview with Piero Zucchelli and Nigel Skinner from Andrew Alliance, discussing the development of a series of automated pipettes that wirelessly collate data, so you don’t have to!

Automation lies at the heart of Andrew Alliance. Why do you consider this to be an important focus for the life sciences industry?

The successful development of current life-saving therapeutics often starts with the identification of new drug targets using sophisticated instrumentation, bioinformatics, and highly valuable human tissue samples. Hypotheses are rigorously tested, experimental conditions tightly controlled, and increasingly complex data sets meticulously analyzed. This vital step in the research discovery process is critically dependent on the consistent and precise preparation, and handling, of these samples, together with often costly reagents.

Robots and co-bots are becoming increasingly common in the life sciences industry, as more and more processes become automated.Phonlamai Photo | Shutterstock

Of the $56 billion per annum spent on research in the United States alone, almost half is used to repeat experiments due to errors made. Automation systems are designed to ensure precision in the lab, mitigating human error and greatly increasing repeatability.

Many laboratories still rely on manual operations to perform tasks, especially when it comes to liquid handling. Fully automated workflows have been achieved in the field of diagnostics, but the same can’t be said for research, due to the flexibility and continuous workflow changes required.

Our mission is to empower life science researchers with the means of significantly improving the repeatability of their experiments, getting superior data and more reliable research outcomes.

The shining star out of all of the technologies that Andrew Alliance produce is OneLab. Please describe OneLab and the major benefits it provides for researchers.

The advancement of science critically depends upon the ability of the researcher to execute a specific protocol, in order to test a hypothesis, and other researchers to be able to repeat it and observe the same results.  Errors in the execution of an experiment waste valuable time and resources.  Worse still, they may go undetected by the peer review process, potentially wasting the time and funding of other research groups, and ultimately damage the reputation of the researcher.

In February 2019, Andrew Alliance launched a unique browser-based intelligent software environment enabling researchers to design, and share, their own protocols, through a highly intuitive graphical interface that can then be executed step-by-step, from any PC or tablet.

Imagine being able to set up each step of your serial dilution on an iPad, including all the required labware and reagents, and then execute your experiment either automatically on a pipetting robot, or semi-automatically, by remotely setting up the required volumes on an electronic pipette, rather than having to input them yourself – tiny buttons can be fiddly with gloved hands, and small displays awkward to read!

Of course, pipetting is just one, albeit highly important, step in a life science experiment work flow.  There are others.. grabbing, heating, shaking, weighing, and so on… which is why Andrew Alliance is working with partners to expand its offering of connected devices solutions, towards a more ‘connected’ laboratory.

Not only does this free up time for the researcher to focus on higher level tasks but it also provides full traceability, with OneLab acquiring data detailing the precise execution of each step of an experiment, beneficial for troubleshooting and ensuring a full audit trail for regulated laboratories.

How can systematic errors such as pipetting the wrong volume affect research results? How common are these types of errors in laboratory science?

Liquid handling is a basic laboratory procedure performed across many industries, including biological research, diagnostics, drug manufacturing, food quality control, and environmental testing.

Being able to carry out liquid handling techniques accurately and reproducibly is essential in almost every laboratory setting. This, somewhat tedious job, requires operator training, cross verification, and quality control steps such as data duplication, blind controls and environmental monitoring to be in place. Another essential part of this process is period validation of the tools involved.

For example, Teunissen et al. conducted an interlaboratory review of a biomarker assay for Alzheimer’s disease. Although each lab received the same sample, same materials and same assay, the results were highly variable.

A major contributing factor, the authors wrote, was variability in pipetting techniques. Indeed,  in a simple qPCR experiment, typical pipetting errors with a standard, routinely calibrated pipette, can result in DNA copy numbers varying by as much as 3%. Imagine the impact of that on the results of an important translation biology experiment, or in a regulated diagnostic laboratory!

Please can you tell me about the automated pipettes offered by Andrew Alliance and how they are revolutionizing every day research?

Pipette+ is the first truly intelligent pipetting system on the market. Co-developed with, and manufactured by market leader Sartorius, the Andrew Alliance electronic pipettes can communicate wirelessly with OneLab via a unique intelligent stand.

Volume and pipette parameters are set automatically, correct pipette selection confirmed, and usage monitored, ensuring systematic and accurate identification of sources of pipetting error.

The net result is that researchers spend less time repeating experiments, and more time focused on higher level activities.  As experimental throughputs increase, there is also a need for greater automation, and Andrew Alliance’s Andrew+ Pipetting Robot fully addresses that.

Andrew+ is based upon the multi-award winning, highly successful, Andrew Pipetting Robot, launched in 2013 and used in many laboratories around the world.  It offers fully automated pipetting, as well as more complex manipulations, using a wide range of accessories and Andrew Alliance electronic pipettes.

Taking full advantage of OneLab, the technology enables rapid transition from laborious manual procedures to error-free, robotic workflows, enabling improved reproducibility and productivity, coupled with full traceability. Finally, health benefits result from reduced repetitive movement and exposure to hazardous materials.

How are these technologies being used by researchers? Which fields are they most applicable to?

Pipetting is widely used across the life sciences and not just in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors but also in areas such as food testing, environmental testing, forensics, cosmetics research, and the hydrocarbon petrochemical industry.

The ‘omics’ such as genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, and glycomics straddle many of these sectors.  A key driver in the adoption of such technologies in these areas is the criticality of accurate pipetting.

Many genomics experiments include a PCR or qPCR component that requires the careful addition of reaction components or preparation of a standard curve. Due to the problem of pipetting error highlighted above, many publications indicate that not only careful pipetting, but also maintaining a calibrated pipette is essential if the data to be generated is accurate.

Unlike genomics, which has a finite number of assay endpoint methods, proteomics has a far broader and more diverse range of assay methodologies and purification procedures. The analysis of the final sample in the assay methodology and endpoint detection system chosen is critical as each step being capable of adding to the variance and inaccuracy of the data that is generated.

How do you think laboratory science will advance over the next 50 years? Do you think the role of the scientist will change as research becomes more automatable?

Automated processes have long been established in the field of bioscreening and the pharmaceutical industry. The situation is quite different in workflows for the more traditional analysis of analytes in food, environmental and forensic analysis. Apart from the highly automated analyzers for analytical measurements, extensive manual activities still dominate here, for example, methods for digestions, dissolution of solids, and the use of volatile media.

The analytical laboratory of the future will be characterized by a much higher degree of automation, together with the integration of artificial intelligence, enabling greater autonomy of decision making. Moreover, robots, are increasingly seen as a way of not only improving staff productivity but also as a means of ensuring complete traceability.

Where can readers find more information?

About Piero Zucchelli

Piero Zucchelli HeadshotPiero Zucchelli is CEO of Andrew Alliance, the robotics company that is improving repeatability with an innovative approach to liquid handling, using conventional lab pipettes. As a scientist, he spent 15 years in experimental particle physics and later developed one of the most advanced micro-fluidics platforms.

Piero received his M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Physics for work performed in Stanford University and CERN. He co-founded Andrew Alliance to improve the progress of biology, under the belief that better laboratory operations will produce better data, and better data will deliver better science.

About Nigel Skinner

Nigel Skinner headshotNigel Skinner is Director of Marketing at Andrew Alliance. He is a commercially focused marketing leader with over 20 years experience in the life science, medical device and information services industries.

Nigel has a Ph.D. in the Life Sciences from Cambridge University, as well as an MBA (Technology Management) and an MEng (McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario).  He is a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing and the CEI, has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific publications, and holds 6 patents.

He has a proven, international track record in creating and leading results-oriented B2B and B2C marketing strategies, having worked in increasingly senior global positions for companies such as Agilent Technologies, General Electric, and Thomson Reuters.

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