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Aug 1, 2012 (Vol. 32, No. 14)

Automation Pioneer Enters Life Sciences

Brooks Seeks to Capitalize on Robotic and Cryogenic Expertise Garnered from Semiconductor Industry

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    Millions of biological or chemical samples can be automatically accessed using precision robotics.

    Brooks Life Science Systems is building on its expertise in robotics and cryogenics to provide state-of-the-art cold storage systems for life scientists. Brooks Life Science Systems is a new division of Brooks Automation, a provider of robotic and cryogenic systems for the semiconductor industry.

    Brooks Automation started more than 25 years ago to develop robotic technologies for semiconductor manufacturing, based on discoveries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Brooks Automation supplies robotic systems to Samsung, Intel, and other leading semiconductor companies.

    Semiconductor manufacturing often takes place in very cold conditions, and Brooks designs systems that generate ultracold environments. “We do precise automation handling of very valuable materials in very cold environments,” says Clint Haris, svp at Brooks Life Science Systems.

    In 2010, Brooks searched for other business opportunities that require automated sample handling in ultracold conditions. The life science market offers a new customer base for the storage and tracking of biological materials.

    Scientists at government institutions and private companies need improved sample-management systems for blood, tissue, DNA, RNA, antibodies, cells, and chemicals. More than a billion biosamples are stored in freezers worldwide by researchers working in personalized medicine, biomarker disease research, drug discovery, and population studies.

    “The big challenge is to store biological materials for long periods of time in very cold environments as low as -150°C,” says Haris. Automated freezer systems designed by Brooks Life Science Systems insure sample integrity, he claims. Standard manual freezers, where samples are placed inside and retrieved manually, are inadequate for today’s high-throughout research and lead to sample degradation and traceability problems.

    Brooks made several acquisitions to expand its life science sample storage portfolio. “We had the core robotics technology, but we didn’t have domain expertise that takes years to develop,” says Haris. In April 2011, Brooks acquired RTS Life Science, followed by Nexus Biosystems, which also gave them REMP® Sample Management, a Switzerland-based pioneer of sample storage systems. All three companies supply large automated sample storage units for chemical and biological samples, known as “stores.”

    Researchers bring samples in trays to the front of a store, and it automatically pulls the samples inside for ultracold storage. The store also catalogs samples, allowing researchers to easily retrieve individual samples. Stores can be very large and centrally located within an organization and used by many researchers as cell repositories and clearing houses.

    Other organizations prefer smaller, multiple stores placed in individual laboratories or buildings. Brooks Life Science Systems has installed more than 180 systems worldwide for biological storage and management, Haris reports.

    Early in 2012, Brooks acquired the Celigo® Cell Cytometer product line from Cyntellect. This minimally invasive, microplate-based cell-imaging system combines high throughput with ease of use. Scientists at pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and academic laboratories use the Celigo Cell Cytometer to analyze both adherent and nonadherent cells growing in microwell plates or T-flasks. High-quality data is obtained for every cell in a microplate in as little as five minutes, including cells on the edges of a well, according to Haris.

    The three-channel fluorescence and noninvasive brightfield imaging of the Celigo Cell Cytometer is suitable for a range of cell-based assays, including cell-line development, cell-based screening, cell culture management, stem cell research, and toxicology studies. Brooks Life Science Systems aims to add companion technologies, both upstream and downstream, to its core cold-storage sample-management portfolio, and the acquisition of the Celigo Cell Cytometer fits this strategy.

    Brooks Life Science Systems is partnering with The Scripps Research Institute to develop and commercialize the Brooks Plate Auditor™. This microplate imaging system evaluates the quality of samples in microwells during high-throughput screening in drug discovery.

    The Plate Auditor avoids labor-intensive, manual QA/QC of compound libraries. It checks that each microwell contains a sufficient volume and that precipitates have not formed that interfere with screening assays. Stored samples also can be monitored for precipitates, evaporation, and degradation, which can slow the drug discovery process. These problems show up downstream and force researchers to rerun experiments. “You can lose days or weeks in the drug discovery cycle,” says Haris.

    Customers come to Brooks Life Science Systems with problems about how to effectively manage samples and maintain integrity, and “we can offer a variety of solutions,” says Haris. Additionally, customers complain that unreliable tools plague R&D processes in biotechnology.

    Haris says that Brooks Life Science Systems holds an edge on solving such problems with experiences gained in the semiconductor industry, where high-quality manufacturing operates 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. “We’re looking to bring robust, reliable manufacturing tools to the life science market as well,” he says.


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