Tecan said this week that it has outfitted Columbia University's Molecular Libraries Screening Center with automated workstations for compound screening and profiling work, the bulk of which will consist of high-content cell-based assays.
Specifically, Columbia has incorporated Tecan's Freedom EVO liquid handling and robotic workarm station, including the Freedom EVOware laboratory scheduling software, into its existing cell culture and automated cellular imaging platforms.
The partnership could represent the leading edge of a new market opportunity for laboratory automation vendors because the number of academic screening centers in the US has been increasing in recent years.
Tecan told CBA News that it has equipped the Columbia screening center with its Freedom EVO workstation, which at its core is a liquid-handling platform capable of handling and dispensing both reagents and cells.
However, the platform is also highly modular, and can be custom-built depending on a customer's needs. In this case, Columbia has also opted for a pair of robotic arms for moving plateware, in addition to the standard liquid-handling arm. It has also incorporated a Tecan plate-washing system; Te-MO 96-head pipetting system (which can be used for 384- and 1,536-well experiments); and Te-Lidder microplate sealer.
"What we're talking about here is scheduling optimization on the fly."
The platform also includes Evotec's EvoWare Plus laboratory scheduling software.
"With this software, you write your assay in such a way in that it coordinates the movements of a single plate throughout the entire portion of the assay having the various reads, and so forth," Tecan spokesperson Reed Otto said. "The scheduling software allows you to run multiple iterations of what you designed for that single plate, and as it adds in the additional iterations, it begins to coordinate the movements of each of the various pieces."
Geoffrey Barger, a network administrator in Columbia's department of physiology and cellular biophysics, told CBA News that the scheduling software is a particularly important component of its automation suite.
"What we're talking about here is scheduling optimization on the fly," Barger said. "The scheduler built into the Evo software optimizes on the fly, and that's what was most important to me as the customer — scheduling software that was integrated into the pipetting software natively, not using a wrap-around scheduler, and something that could optimize on the fly, meaning multi-tasking."
Barger said that Columbia's screening center will be almost exclusively conducting high-content cell-based assays for nuclear-to-cytoplasm translocation. Its current primary screening instrument is a GE Healthcare IN Cell Analyzer.
Columbia is one of nine academic or research institutes to have received Roadmap grants from the NIH as part of its MLSCN initiative. The others are Emory University, Southern Research Institute, Burnham Institute, Scripps Research Institute, University of New Mexico, University of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh, and Vanderbilt University.
Each of those screening centers is expected to conduct screening experiments at a pace befitting of many pharmaceutical or biotech companies, which will require at least a modicum of industrial-scale automation.
This in turn could serve as a source of revenues for large-scale automation vendors such as Tecan, Thermo Electron, Beckman Coulter, Caliper, Aurora Discovery, and Protedyne. There are also a number of specialty shops with various products for things like automated cell culture, liquid handling, and plate handling.
Columbia's MLSC is headed by James Rothman, professor of physiology and cellular biophysics at Columbia, and chief scientific advisor for GE Healthcare.
— Ben Butkus ([email protected])