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Bio-Rad Launches Automated Plate-Handler to Boost Throughput of CFX Real-Time PCR Systems

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By Bernadette Toner

Bio-Rad Laboratories this week launched an automated front end for its CFX96 and CFX384 real-time PCR detection systems, marking the company's first automated real-time PCR system.

The new technology, called the CFX automation system, includes a bench-top plate handler that can load up to 20 384-well plates, or 7,680 samples, at one time on the CFX384. It also includes control software that manages the configuration and operation of the CFX automation system so that researchers can assign either the same or manifold PCR protocols across each plate.

The automated system is targeted at "anyone who wants to increase their throughput and run their system in an automated environment," Richard Kurtz, marketing manager for amplification at Bio-Rad, told PCR Insider. "Mostly it targets higher-throughput customers like pharma, but we're finding that there is actually a request and a need for 384-well systems and higher throughput now in academic labs as well."

Kurtz said that the primary benefit of the system is its ability to enable hands-off operation of the CFX instruments. It "eliminates the bottleneck of needing to have someone present to run the experiments" he said. "Now you can run your experiments overnight without having to be present to put the plates into the system."

The system is based on Caliper's Twister II microplate handler, which Bio-Rad is distributing under an original equipment manufacturer agreement. The Twister, developed by Zymark, which Caliper acquired in 2003, "has been on the market for almost 10 years now, so it's very reliable and easy to use," Kurtz said.

He said that Bio-Rad modified the robotics to work with the CFX384 and also developed its own software platform for managing the system.

The company also added other features, such as the capability to send users an e-mail with an attached data file once the runs are completed. Users can also request an automatically generated PDF report for each experiment.

Other 384-well real-time PCR platforms already have automated front ends. Roche's LightCycler and Life Technologies' 7900HT system, for example, are integrated with Caliper's Twister II.

Kurtz acknowledged that the system is "basically a similar setup as that of some of the other 384-well instruments out on the market," and noted that the company decided to launch its first automated real-time PCR system "in response to the market demand."

The company launched the CFX384 in December 2008. Since then, Kurtz said, customers have said that "their issue isn’t so much running the 384 wells. It's actually being able to generate more and more data over a given amount of time. And the limiting step in that is having someone there to load the plates."

Kurtz said that the company is "definitely looking at different ways to improve the higher-throughput workflow for our customers, and make it easier for customers who in the past have kind of sacrificed some of the convenience and flexibility of lower-throughput systems to have higher throughput."

The company, however, is not focusing on the same kind of customers who might be interested in Roche's LightCycler 1536, a 1,536-well real-time PCR platform that it began shipping last year.

That product "is targeting a market that is running a lot of screening-type assays," Kurtz said. "Basically you lose a lot of flexibility when you go to a system like that, whereas with the CFX384 you keep a lot of the same flexibility, so that you can kind of adapt the system to different chemistries."

Although customers who opt for a 1,536-well system ultimately get higher throughput, "with a CFX384 with the plate-handling system, you don't lose a lot of the flexibility and features that you have with the 96-well systems," Kurtz said.

The list price for the automation system is $35,000.

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