The Future of Laboratory Sample Processing?
23 Mar 2012

Biomedical laboratories need to be safe, ergonomic and flexible. They also need to deal with a high throughput of samples whilst reliably documenting each step of the testing process. When patients go to their doctor for a blood test, they generally have to wait for a few days for the results. The lengthy turnaround time can be partly attributed to the fact that each sample must be accompanied by meticulous records, documenting the entire journey of a sample from its receipt at the laboratory, to the issue of results. As well as being time consuming, manual documentation of samples is also open to human error. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering IBMT in St. Ingbert are working to fully automate the processing of samples in tomorrow’s laboratories.

The complete automatic processing of samples demands a host of technical innovations, and the experts at IBMT have come up with a number of concepts in collaboration with universities and medium-sized companies. In the past, test tubes have been written on by hand. More recently, the data has been stored in a barcode for easy scanning. However this does not go far enough for a fully automated system because information contained in a barcode cannot be edited.

The researchers have developed a tiny microchip which is embedded in the plastic of the test tube and used to store all relevant information such as when and where a sample is from, as well as the patient’s name. When the test tube is placed into an analyzer, the equipment can record details on the embedded chip of exactly what went on in the analysis. This means that the test tube itself carries the sample’s entire history with no need for technicians to write up a laborious report. “Usually, samples are accompanied by a report slip,” says Daniel Schmitt, project leader for the IBMT. Alternatively, the lab will know to expect a sample when it receives an e-mail containing all the necessary information. “With test tube chips, the sample and the information are inseparably linked, and there is no way for information to go astray.”

An automated laboratory needs software to manage the analysis process and the IBMT researchers have worked together with Soventec GmbH to develop the LabOS laboratory management system. As soon a test tube is placed in a reader, a screen displays data on the sample’s history and also where the sample is scheduled to go next.

The operation of the lab equipment is still in the hands of technicians, but the future of this could become automated too. A network system was developed at the IBMT in collaboration with the Technische Universität Braunschweig to connect all apparatus to a central control point. This “smallCAN” bus system, which was inspired by the networking of automotive control units, even makes it possible to access individual pieces of equipment over the Internet.

“Using smallCAN and LabOS, we can make lab operations almost entirely self-contained and testing can take place automatically,” says Schmitt. That cuts down significantly on paperwork. Instead of spending precious time filling out report forms, technicians can concentrate on actual lab work, for instance preparing or organizing test tubes. This allows laboratories to increase both the throughput of samples and the quality of the results.

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Sonia Nicholas
Clinical Diagnostics Editor