Empowering 40 years of progress
Tecan began its journey 40 years ago, and in that time the world of science and healthcare has changed immensely. We have had the privilege to be involved in the greatest scientific revolution of our time: uncovering biological insights to benefit human health.
During the last four decades of Tecan’s engagement we have entered the Century of Biology. We have seen the human genome fully mapped, the birth of the first cloned animal, and genome editing techniques that hold the promise to revolutionize medicine. Many diseases that were a death sentence 40 years ago are now cured or manageable through advanced diagnostics and novel treatments.
Tecan has helped empower researchers all around the world to make discoveries and to bring these discoveries to the clinic. Now diagnosis is faster and more accurate giving patients individual answers they need, along with a clear path to treatment and recovery that had not previously existed.
Looking back over the past 40 years, and looking at Tecan today, it is clear that our journey has only just begun. The medical field has achieved some momentous milestones and now faces new opportunities and challenges. Research reveals new depths of complexity for genetic disorders, infectious diseases can rapidly become global pandemics, and more data than we could ever have imagined enable but sometimes also obscure the potential medical breakthroughs hidden within. These challenges are the challenges of researchers, clinicians and most importantly patients around the world. Helping overcome these challenges is Tecan’s mission.
We will continue to serve the scientific and clinical communities. We will take their challenges and drive towards new solutions with our passion for innovation and with the highest standards. That much has not changed in 40 years and will not change moving forward. We live the promise to our customers, we are “always there for you”.
We look forward to the next 40 years of this wildly exciting journey – 40 years of enabling innovation, curing diseases, and improving the lives of patients. Thank you for the part that you have played in this journey, and for shaping the future of Tecan.
Diagnosing the previously undiagnosable, one patient at a time
Back in the 80s, the only way to diagnose a genetic disease was to peer down a microscope at chromosomes to try to detect a genetic defect by eye or by linking the inheritance of genetic markers with clinical traits that could easily be observed. But being limited by what you can see down a microscope is like having a low power telescope pointed at the heavens.
Clinical geneticist, Professor Angus Clarke from Cardiff University is a fellow of The Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health and has spent his career working on genetic disorders such as Huntington’s Disease and Rett syndrome. Looking back on his early career, Prof. Clarke recalled, “I’ve got a recollection of how basic linkage analysis was. Getting to direct mutation testing gave us a huge boost.”
The ability to determine point mutations using sequencing technologies had profound impacts for diseases such as Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). Prof. Clarke remarked that as the disease was sex linked, some mothers would opt to terminate male pregnancies, sometimes multiple times. “As soon as the mutations were identified that practice ended,” explained Prof. Clarke.
Identifying point mutations was the start of our ability to diagnose genetic diseases; this has been revolutionized by Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) over recent years. We now have the ability to sequence every base in the human genome and compare the sequence of DNA in every patient so that known and unknown mutations can be identified and verified. However, this requires the ability to process, analyze and interpret vast amounts of genetic data.
One of the companies taking on this challenge is Ambry Genetics; a company on a mission to understand human disease on a genetic level.
Today, Ambry Genetics operates the pioneering Super Lab, which is powered by Tecan’s automation and liquid handling technology. The goal is clear: to get accurate diagnostics into the hands of the clinicians and patients as quickly as possible. Automation of the genomic workflows is the basis of making the benefits of genetic medicine a reality for more patients than ever before.
The implementation of advanced genomics into the clinical space is just beginning. The hard work of companies like Ambry Genetics is bringing us closer to delivering reliable clinical decisions based on genetic mutations, so that every patient is diagnosed and treated appropriately.
Addressing the unmet needs of patients
The diagnosis of multiple myeloma is a real challenge. A cure remains to be discovered, but this potentially fatal type of blood cancer that mainly affects the elderly population can be managed. The key is to diagnose early to improve patient survival and quality of life by providing care at the earliest possible stage.
Multiple myeloma is a cancer involving plasma cells, a type of white blood cell that produces antibodies to fight infections. In myeloma, abnormal plasma cells produce large amounts of a single type of antibody which has no useful function. The cells accumulate in the bone marrow, crowding out healthy blood cells and disrupting normal antibody production.
Patients often have nonspecific symptoms, such as fatigue, frequent infections and/or bone pain, which makes timely diagnosis challenging. Back in 1980, a new group of patients were identified with ‘smoldering multiple myeloma’, a preclinical stage for which treatment leads to better survival – if the patient can be diagnosed in time.
Up to now, clinicians are mostly dependent on a slow, laborious and insensitive technique called electrophoresis to detect the abnormal antibodies of multiple myeloma. As a result, patients often have a heavy burden of cancer cells well before the cancer is detected, resulting in a high proportion of disease related complications and a poor prognosis.
Enter the mass spectrometer, an instrument that is highly sensitive in detecting the abnormal plasma cell antibodies. The researchers at the Mayo Clinic, USA who developed this technique, used mass spectrometry to analyze samples collected from the 1960s and onwards to investigate an asymptomatic condition called MGUS that can lead to multiple myeloma. The power of their new method was demonstrated when they detected antibodies involved in MGUS in half the individuals originally identified as negative and who later developed multiple myeloma. Earlier detection of preclinical disease by mass spectrometry may ultimately lead to earlier intervention, reduced complications and longer survival.
UK-based company ‘The Binding Site’, a leader in specialized medical diagnostics that aims to improve the diagnosis and management of blood cancers and immune system disorders, decided to bring the mass spectrometry method to the routine clinical testing lab in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic. One of the most difficult steps was the preparation of patient samples for analysis, and this led to collaboration with Tecan Partnering to automate the process in the clinical testing environment. The aim is for patients’ primary unprocessed samples to be prepared for mass spectro- metry in a robust and reproducible process leading to high accuracy, precision and resolution. Together, we are now working towards the detection of multiple myeloma much sooner to ensure that the right treatment can be prescribed earlier.
This is one example of how lab automation can enable the transfer of powerful new analytical methods into the clinical lab. The result is improved diagnosis and support to clinicians in making informed decisions that radically improve patient outcomes.
HIV from discovery to surveillance in Kenya, a role model for other countries
In 1981 a mysterious new affliction baffled the medical community. Previously healthy young men were contracting rare and aggressive forms of pneumonia and cancer usually found only in severely immunosuppressed patients. Those first sporadic cases of what is now known as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) turned out to be the start of a global epidemic that has since claimed the lives of over 32 million people worldwide and has become one of the greatest public health challenges in history.
In the first decade of the epidemic, AIDS was shrouded in mystery and the life expectancy after diagnosis was just 10 to 12 years. By the 1990s, treatment regimens had become complex, with patients taking up to 20 pills a day. Today, thanks to significant advances in research and medical science, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the retrovirus that causes AIDS, is now well understood. Most people with HIV take only two tablets each day to keep the virus in check, and many patients can expect to live into their 70s.
But the AIDS crisis is far from over. In 2018 over 770,000 people died of HIV-related illnesses and today over 40 million are living with HIV worldwide. In some regions of the world the number of new infections continues to rise. Early and reliable HIV detection is fundamental to achieving ambitious global targets for 2020 and beyond. HIV misdiagnosis can be disastrous at the personal level as well has having a significant negative impact on public health.
In Africa, Kenya’s Ministry of Health has led the way in tackling the problem of misdiagnosis by implementing a national HIV proficiency testing (PT) scheme. The National Public Health Laboratory (NPHL) in Nairobi coordinates two PT cycles annually, using blinded methods to check how reliably healthcare workers are able to obtain correct results using the frontline rapid HIV test. The results help NPHL to quickly identify poor performers, so that problems with equipment and methodology are corrected as soon as possible.
Automation has been critical in helping the NPHL cope with a dramatic increase in demand for PT across the country. Before PT was rolled out to individual service providers, the number of participants was under 3,000. “Today our team of just seven people produces PT panels for over 20,000 participants,” says NPHL Production Manager Sophie Mwanyumba. “This level of scale-up initially meant long working hours for staff and a high risk of errors. With automated dispensing we have cut our turnaround time down from three months to one.”
Kenya’s approach is a true success story that neighboring countries are keen to emulate. Sophie Mwanyumba’s vision for the future? “I’d like to take the spirit of quality improvement global, starting with neighboring countries like Uganda and Tanzania,” she says. And if the challenges of AIDS/HIV have taught us anything over the past four decades, it’s that when medical professionals and technologists unite in a common cause, there is no limit to what can be achieved.
Speeding up research into rare forms of cancer
“Essentially, we are translating our pipeline from bench to bedside in a much shorter timeframe.” Prof Giovanni Roti, Dept. of Medicine and Surgery, University of Parma, Italy.
Children who suffer from acute myeloid leukemia (AML) or T-cell lymphoid leukemia (TLL) present clinicians with a major challenge: not only are the diseases aggressive and deadly, but developing new treatments is very difficult. With only 10 cases in 100,000 people each year in Europe, clinical samples for testing are rare. Consequently, there is a scarcity of primary patient samples on which to test new drugs.
The Dana-Farber Institute in Boston, MA, where Prof. Roti worked for several years, was instrumental in the first treatment of child leukemia. The devastating symptoms of leukemia have established a sense of urgency to move research into the clinic as fast as possible. Prof. Roti's research continues this mission.
Prof. Roti's lab meets the problem head-on by focusing on investigating pediatric cancers with chemogenics – the application of small molecule libraries to identify new targets and drugs to attack the diseases. By screening libraries of chemical entities on the rare clinical samples, Prof. Roti is able to identify the targets and drugs worth investigating. None of this would be possible without the automation of micro-dispensing of the drugs provided by Tecan.
As well as traditional drug discovery, cell therapies show great promise for the future treatment of several types of leukemia. Recently, a CAR-T cell therapy was approved by the FDA for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). T-cells taken from a patient are engineered in the laboratory to aggressively destroy their cancer cells.
Though promising, CAR-T therapies have limitations. Life threatening symptoms of patients can worsen while they wait for the therapeutic T-cells to be prepared in a lab and new CAR-T treatments for other forms of leukemia are slow to gain regulatory approval. The labor-intensive processes to produce the therapies has also led to a single treatment costing hundreds of thousands of US dollars.
The challenges facing emerging treatments for pediatric leukemia need the technological solutions in which Tecan specializes. Once taken from the patient, T-cells needed for the therapy must spend as little time in the lab as possible before they are returned to the patient’s bloodstream. Through automation, miniaturization, and streamlining lab processes, the therapeutic T-cells can be processed faster than ever. Therapies can be produced quickly and tailored to the individual patient to maximize their effectiveness while limiting dangerous side effects. Automation will inevitably bring lower costs as less time and labor are needed for each CAR-T therapy. As the time for the journey from “bench to bedside” decreases, more and more children suffering from pediatric leukemia are given a chance to recover from a cruel disease and live full and symptom-free lives.