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Integrating Analytical Chemistry Equipment into Lab Automation Systems

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

These days, many labs are using the mass spectrometer (MS) as a detector for early stage screening viability of new drugs. This is because it's fast, very sensitive, extremely versatile, and typically a safer way than the classic alternative assays, which commonly utilize nasty chemicals to get a read.

If you already have automated liquid handlers preparing your assay plates, why not include the MS right into the workflow in automated fashion? This way, you can easily prepare a plate of 96 or 384 samples to be screened per plate. You can get even more throughput by multiplexing samples into those wells.. and the software behind the MS detector can help determine your results by analyzing the breakdown of molecular weights found. This data allows scientists to paint an intricate picture of the experiment results.

Shown here is a Vanquish liquid chromatography (LC) system from Thermo Fisher, which includes a state of the art auto-sampler to get samples from the plate into the three detectors. The integration task is in utilizing the robotic arm to feed plate into the auto-sampler along with the appropriate data package, and the auto-sampler then handles injection of samples into the MS detector.

It took development to get the device communication ironed out, and another challenge was a bit of tricky data processing. The end result: this LC-MS system is receiving plates directly from a liquid handler preparing them. I was fortunate enough to be directly involved with this one in both the system design / manufacturing and the final integration into chemistry lab processes.

LC front end is nice because it can be used to minimize the sample prep required to give accurate reads, but it's not the fastest way of going about this. This system takes roughly 2 minutes per sample injected. Products like the RapidFire from Agilent and the Echo MS from Sciex are capable injecting samples from these plates at a rate of seconds per sample. This is really fast, but there is no LC front end on this type of fast system. This means that the workflow to prepare these assay plates is more involved, and other automation machines may be needed to accommodate.

How to approach these projects

Integration projects involving analytical chemistry equipment should be approached like any other automation project. The phases are similar, just think of this as another peripheral device for analysis, like a simple plate reader. it just happens to be an incredibly complicated peripheral device.

The support for these types of setups is growing, and there are partners in the industry right now that can help. Biosero and HighRes Biosolutions are two capable companies that center their businesses around helping labs build automation systems. These experts still hold the keys to allowing this technology to accelerate in the lab, and they will for some time. These projects are ambitions, and can be a tough sell to upper management.

The chromatography vendors like Agilent, Waters, Sciex, Bruker, and Shimadzu are also waking up to the trend in automated sample introduction strategies. Many have taken on these projects before, or are currently hungry to find biotech partners to help drive the development of crucial hardware that will streamline this. If you plan to hang back and wait to see how this shakes out, that honestly may not be a bad call. There is serious promise here, but there are also a lot of kinks to be worked out. If like me, you are putting in work early to help develop ways to make automation technology more turn-key for labs in the future, then strap in.

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