Lab Automation 2011 - All things nano

Theral Timpson

The Lab Automation conference offers an exhibition of all the major players in the industry and a great opportunity for education in all things automation with over 100 sessions and over 150 poster presentations. The conference begins with a weekend of short courses ranging in the expected topics from basic Introduction to Laboratory Automation, Liquid Handling Boot Camps to Bar Code Technology. Again this year, the nano world dominated the topics. One well attended poster presentation covered “Nanocrystal Clusters for Bioseparation” proposing a strategy for the production of novel porous nanoparticles for separating biomolecules such as proteins and peptides. Nanoparticles cannot be conveniently separated from a mixture by centrifugation because they are so small. Another problem comes from the fact that nanoparticles are normally dispersed in nonpolar solvents. On the surface, they are typically coated with a layer of protecting ligands that prevents them from trapping biomolecules. The authors of the poster from UC Riverside, Zenda Lu and Yadong Yin, come up with the process for synthesizing some novel particles which can be used as a powerful absorbent for the enrichment of peptides and proteins in solution. These new nanoparticles can then be easily separated from solution by an external magnetic field, thereby further enhancing peptide separation.

Another poster by Debkishore Mitra, Hinesh Patel and Luke Lee from UC Berkeley proposed a new theranostic platform for breast cancer. Present biomarker analysis systems are limited by the small volumes available. The Berkeley team is developing a portable, robust microfluidic-based integrated molecular diagnostic system (iMDs) that would only require small samples and could do multiplexed analysis of a panel of biomarkers. This system works through cell trapping and cell lysis. The cell trapping pre-concentrates the cellular biomarkers of interest. Once the cells are trapped, they are lysed so that intracellular and surface proteins can be probed.

The longer educational sessions were kicked off on Monday by a keynote address to an overflowing ballroom (over 4000 participants at the conference), again on nanotechnology. Chad Mirkin, Director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University presented a new ployvalent oligonucleotide nanoparticle conjugate. His team has been working with gold particles that are loaded with 20-80 mer oligos. These particles have proved “highly resistant to nuclease digestion, have high tailorable binding constants for large mRNA, and exhibit high entry efficiency into multiple cell types. In an experiment with mice, the team was able to knock down cancer tumor growth by injecting mouse tumors with siRNA nanoparticles. The particles have proven effective deep into organs and are good for local environments as well as for use in the circulatory system. The biggest concern for this novel particle is toxicity. Mirkin said toxicity has not been perceived as a problem so far, though the group has done no long term studies. He went on to claim the team has developed a carrier free particle. In this case, once the particles are fabricated, the gold could then be removed. “With the introduction of these very special new constructs much of what people do with siRNA will become obsolete. We can now get into cells the way other delivery methods cannot.”

Most of the sessions continued the subject of nanotherapeutics and nanoparticles. Other sessions over the next three days were devoted to bioinformatics and cloud computing and evolving applications for automation with renewable bioenergy and bioproducts.

The conference is billed with the slogan, “bringing science, technology and industry together.” Perhaps this was best done at a two hour session on Monday evening called Late Night with LRIG, a rapid-fire session. Fifteen companies with innovative technologies were chosen to give 10 minute presentations. New products included a novel data management software by the German company BSSN Software and deep UV LED’s made by the Japanese company, DOWA.


Highlights from this year’s exhibit floor were centered around small steps toward automation. The new pipettor company, ViaFlow, and lab supply house, Phenix Scientific, displayed two different versions of a manual 96 well pipetting station. These hybrids--not really a machine, but much more than a multichannel pipettor- offer a lab an inexpensive and simple way to move toward high throughput processing. The bigger automated liquid handling manufacturers including Hamilton, Teacan, Thermo all presented smaller footprint machines designed as first step automated systems for labs. They were priced between $20,000 to $30,000. A couple new systems at the other end of the scale, very large footprint stations that integrated storage with sample handling were introduced by Hamilton and BioNex Solutions.