This year has seen many major breakthroughs in medicine and biology, including in regenerative medicine and the development of genetic editing methods that promise to revolutionize disease management and plant breeding. On the technical side, artificial intelligence is making great strides forward, driving the need to ramp up the generation of data that can be mined and interpreted as a basis for rapid decisions in medicine and many other areas. We are truly living in the century of biology.
Wherever you look, the key to success has been enabling technologies that bridge gaps between disciplines. In the case of Tecan, we have seen further development of our technologies as enablers, paving ways to produce ever-greater amounts of valuable data, more reproducibly and efficiently, and more safely, in a broad range of applications.
This year, we have selected a few stories that exemplify the every-day challenges faced by customers and how Tecan technology is helping them to move forward. Two of the stories show how flexible and effective lab automation can be in advancing medicine, from helping in the search for cures to child cancer to partnering with a diagnostics company to streamline the safe screening of pathogens and detection of antibiotic resistance. The other stories give us a strong reminder of how automation technology can support us in our reliance on the natural world as a source of sustainable food and invaluable drug substances.
Tecan will always have the future in focus.
Partnering in Focus
Working with Tecan Partnering has helped many companies to lift their assay technology to another level. A case in point is Mobidiag, a Finnish biotech enterprise that has partnered with Tecan to develop an automated platform to ramp up the throughput of their diagnostics tests for detecting gastrointestinal pathogens and antibiotic resistance.
With over 200 million cases of infectious gastroenteritis per year in the US alone, gastrointestinal infections are among the most commonly encountered infections in primary care. Many infections may not be severe and resolve quickly, but outbreaks in hospitals are particularly serious and gastrointestinal infections cause the deaths of millions of children worldwide each year.
Rapid diagnosis to support effective treatment is vital. To achieve this, the R&D group at Mobidiag had already developed sensitive methods for detecting the pathogens involved and any antibiotic resistance they might have. What they needed was a more secure and efficient way to prepare the nucleic acid samples for their diagnostic tests. The solution had to deliver high throughput, avoid any risk of cross-contamination that would give false results, and also protect the operators from dangerous pathogens, including bacteria, parasites and viruses. For Juha Kirveskari, R&D Director at Mobidiag, the technology choice was clear. “I had used a Tecan platform in an open configuration in a clinical laboratory in the past, so I knew the technology and the software, and that the hardware was reliable and could withstand routine daily operation without technical issues. I also knew that the local service personnel are highly professional. We discussed our ideas with Tecan, and the company suggested some very helpful features.”
The result was Amplidiag® Easy, a versatile, fully integrated platform operated using a simple user interface that automatically processes samples for Mobidiag’s diagnostics tests. The company is now distributing the system across Europe and other countries where CE marking is recognized.
This is yet another example of how Tecan Partnering has helped a company to bring its vision to life.
Child Cancer Treatment in Focus
As the fight against cancer continues, one area deserves particular attention – the effort to deliver better treatment options and outcomes for children with cancer. Automated liquid handling from Tecan is helping one research group in their search for agents to improve the outcome for children suffering from brain tumors, the most common form of solid tumor in children.
The Telethon Kids Cancer Centre (TKCC) in Perth, Australia brings together researchers and clinicians from around the world to develop more effective treatments for childhood cancer. Within the TKCC, the Brain Tumour Research Program searches for agents that can sensitize cancer cells to improve the effect of conventional treatments such as chemo- and radiation therapy. To do this, the research team uses model systems to screen drugs for anti-cancer properties and dilute them to determine the minimum dose needed for treatment. The team also studies how anti-cancer drugs interact to ensure that administering new drugs does not interfere with ongoing treatment.
One of the challenges the team faces is to run thousands of drug tests, including large numbers of dilutions, efficiently and error-free. To solve this problem, they decided to automate using a Tecan D300e Digital Dispenser that has essentially transformed their work. As Dr. Jacqueline Whitehouse, senior scientist, said, “What used to take hours now takes minutes on the Tecan system.” Indeed, they have boosted throughput 4–5 fold and also increased the accuracy and precision in their data. This increase in reliability means that they don’t need to repeat experiments so often.
High-precision dispensing of small volumes also saves money since experiments can be run with minute amounts of the expensive, precious anticancer drug substances. Added to that, the small footprint of the instrument means experiments can be run in a biosafety cabinet that protects both the cell cultures and the lab staff.
It is efforts like this that will speed up the discovery of efficient therapies that improve the survival and quality of life for children suffering from cancer.
New Drug Candidates in Focus
The search for new small molecule drugs is a major challenge in health care. Chemists are therefore turning to an old and trusted source for new leads – traditional medicine. The challenge is to find the active substances in these complex extracts, and a research team in China is using Tecan technology to help in their search.
Nature is a great source of medicines, from aspirin and codeine to the chemotherapy drug paclitaxel (Taxol®). In fact, about half of clinically approved drugs in the last 40 years have been derived from natural products. This inspired Professor Yi Wang and his research group at the College of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Zhejiang University, China to search for new drug leads in the traditional medicines that have been used in China for thousands of years to treat illnesses, injuries and infections.
Each of the over 300 traditional medicines is a highly complex mixture and just one extract can contain thousands of compounds, making the discovery of active substances extremely difficult. The team therefore simplified the search by building a library of over 30 000 fractions that were prepared from crude extracts based on various chemical properties.
The next step was to screen the fractions for promising biological activity. To do this, Professor Wang and his team used an Infinite® F200 multimode microplate reader and a monochromator-based Infinite M1000 Pro to develop a large number of assays. They also added on a Tecan D300e Digital Dispenser to accurately dispense extremely low volumes. The assays were used to measure cell toxicity (for chemotherapy), and to find anti-tumor and anti-oxidative compounds.
Tecan technology has enabled the team to develop assays that were not possible earlier, including complex experiments that showed that many Chinese medicines rely on several compounds working together. These synergistic experiments would have been too complicated to perform by hand.
This meeting between traditional medicine and modern analytics promises to increase the flow of drug candidates and open up new paths for treatment.
Sustainable Food in Focus
With a rapidly increasing world population and pressure on natural resources, ensuring a sustainable supply of healthy food is critical. Fisheries are particularly under threat, which means that monitoring populations is vital to deciding when to open or close fisheries. Tecan technology is now playing a key role in tracking hatchery-reared fish used to boost the natural Pacific Chinook and Coho salmon populations.
The traditional method of tracking involved physically tagging some of the juvenile fish to help in tracing them back to their hatchery and brood. The problem was that this method was expensive, slow, and required killing the fish. It also gave an incomplete picture of the fish population since only a few of the tagged fish were caught.
With a remit to monitor the salmon stocks, the molecular genetics team at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada realized that they could solve these problems cost-effectively using ‘parentage-based tagging’ instead of physical tagging. This involved building a database containing the genetic fingerprints for each hatchery brood stock. The genetic tag of individual fish caught in the wild could then be used to search the database and find the fish’s hatchery and brood.
The sampling involved simply punching out a small portion of a fin. The DNA was then extracted and several hundred sections of the genome were analyzed using Next Generation Sequencing, an advanced method for DNA sequencing. As is often the case, a major challenge was increasing the throughput in sample processing. Knowing that Tecan had a good reputation for quality products, the team decided to use two Freedom EVO® 100 workstations to feed samples into the DNA sequencer. Thanks to this automation, the team can now process 1 500 fish samples per week, making this a cost-effective method that works on all fish caught and has been running for two years.