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Douglas Scientific Doubles Throughput with Launch of IntelliQube PCR Platform

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NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Laboratory instrument manufacturer Douglas Scientific has launched a fully automated, high-throughput platform that supports RT-qPCR, end-point PCR, and isothermal nucleic acid amplification.

Called the IntelliQube, the platform is compatible with many different chemistries and probes, and offers five detection channels to support multiplexing. It integrates liquid handling, thermal cycling, detection, and data analysis, and runs using an upgraded version of the firm's patented consumable, Array Tape.

Array Tape is the enabling technology behind many of the products from the Alexandria, Minn.-based firm, allowing chemical reactions to be processed in a continuous in-line fashion, Ross Higgins, product and application manager at Douglas Scientific, told GenomeWeb in an interview.

Previously, Array Tape – a thin polymer strip stamped with microwells – was marketed in a format of 384 wells per array. But for the IntelliQube, the firm created a 768-well format, "delivering twice the throughput of a standard qPCR machine," Higgins said.

Each well has a reaction volume of 1.6 microliters, which also reduces the cost of reagents, he said. Array Tape is supplied in units of 50 arrays per roll, and rolls are loaded into the IntelliQube. Software can then be used to instruct the instrument to separate the arrays, to ensure there is no consumable waste.

The continuous nature of a tape, rather than individual plates, makes it ideal for automation of high-throughput applications, Higgins said.

"What we're able to do with it is build instrumentation around almost an assembly line process," Higgins said. "You can separate discreet processes on the same instrument in a continuous, in-line fashion; it really gives you quite a bit of gain in terms of throughput and efficiency, as opposed to having multiple instruments doing those same things in plates."

The IntelliQube comes on a cart, so does not occupy bench space, and is roughly the size of other liquid-handling platforms on the smaller end of the spectrum. "It's not quite as large as some of the Tecan or Hamilton systems, but not quite as small as the Agilent Bravo, for example," Higgins said.

The firm has also made the price of consumables "competitive with microtiter solutions," Higgins said. The IntelliQube platform itself has throughput and capabilities equivalent to two 384-well qPCR systems, a liquid handler, and a plate stacker, and the pricing is similar or lower than the total cost of those instruments, he added.

Array Tape also uses smaller volumes compared to plate-based reactions. "As a result, our customers can end up saving about 90 percent on reagents, if they're at, say, a 20 microliter reaction volume," Higgins said.

IntelliQube is a quantitative PCR platform, but the firm also makes an Array Tape-based liquid handling platform for end-point PCR called Nexar.

The difference between the two is, "With IntelliQube, the liquid handling and the thermocycling and detection have been automated and integrated into the same instrument, so we have the PCR set-up, and the amplification and detection occurring in the same system," Higgins said. The firm also sells centrifuges retro-fitted to spin Array Tape, if needed.

The Array Tape concept grew out of a carrier tape used in microprocessing assembly, which was developed by a company called Global Array, Higgins said. Desiring a collaboration to build lab equipment around this concept, in 2004 that firm approached Douglas Machine, a firm that specializes in automated secondary packaging equipment and manufactures "highly specialized, highly automated solutions for companies like Frito-Lay and Pepsi," he explained.

Douglas Scientific was spun off of that partnership, acquired Global Array and the IP on Array Tape in 2009, and became a wholly owned subsidiary rather than a division of Douglas Machine the following year. The company is experiencing rapid growth, and now has about 110 employees, Higgins said.

For now, all the platforms are for research use, but the door is open to develop them for diagnostic and clinical use. "We have several customers that use our legacy platform, Nexar, for clinical applications, but through the auspice of an LDT," Higgins noted.

"If we identify a particular need, or a particular need for a specific diagnostic, I think we would certainly pursue that. At this point we don't have any applications pending with the FDA for a targeted use of our platform, but it would certainly make sense," Higgins said.

The Nexar is most often put to use in the agricultural research sector, he noted, because it allows for high volume SNP detection and is useful for seed and plant breeding.

The company also manufactures a point-of-need isothermal platform called the AmpliFire, consisting of a heating block able to process eight samples at a time, data storage capability, and a touch-screen interface. It is currently used by customers in the agricultural sector, most notably to test crudely prepped specimens in the field for citrus greening disease, allowing quick determination of whether a tree is infected.

"That was the initial vision, but as we're getting out into the market and talking with prospective customers and companies, we're seeing a broader appeal for the instrument," Higgins said. The platform has similarities with the Alere i isothermal device, which was recently granted a CLIA waiver to run an influenza A/B assay in low-complexity settings, and Higgins said he "wouldn't preclude" a similar a development path for the AmpliFire.

The AmpliFire was also designed to be rugged and was the isothermal platform of choice for Lucigen in developing its point-of-care diagnostic for Ebola, for example, as recently reported by GenomeWeb.

"We've had a flurry of interest in that particular unit since we first launched it, primarily from companies developing rapid diagnostic tests for emerging pathogens," Higgins said.

A collaboration with EnviroLogix was the genesis of the AmpliFire platform. "When we first started discussions with EnviroLogix, I think there was a lot of excitement and vision around what a 10 or 15 minute amplification process could do for the market, not just for the low-throughput, rapid diagnostic market, but also for our very high-throughput customers," he said.

That collaboration has since developed into pairing DNAble isothermal technology with Array Tape, and a multi-year distribution agreement. The firm also has an agreement with Thermo Fisher Scientific brand Life Technologies to meld TaqMan real-time PCR assays with Array Tape for very high-throughput genotyping. 

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