Mini 'warehouse bots' automate viral surveillance

Mini ‘warehouse bots’ automate viral surveillance

Processing the DNA samples required for viral surveillance and many other biotechnology-based diagnostics can be quite similar to how packages are transported in repositories—both of which are time-consuming and labor-intensive. In increasingly futuristic warehouses, maintenance hatch-size robots power the movement of large, heavy packages that workers use to manually push through fulfillment and sorting areas, transforming batch-based manual labor into continuous, automated operations.

“If you think of microfluidic samples as packages that need to be processed by constant workflows, we can reimagine the way robots can help with diagnosis,” said Sam Emamengad, PhD, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. Angeles (University of California).

Emaminejad and a team of UCLA researchers have developed a technology that uses a swarm of millimeter-sized magnets as mobile robotic agents (“ferrobots”) for precise and powerful control of magnetized sample droplets and the high-precision delivery of flexible workflows. Within a programmable platform based on a palm-sized printed circuit board, several equivalent laboratory processes can perform DNA amplification assays to overcome the limitations of fluid handling technologies.

Imaminejad, one of the co-authors of the article, said,Viral swarms enable accessible and adaptable automated virus testing,Posted in temper nature.

Stop the spread of the virus in its tracks

The speed with which we can track the virus is directly related to the spread of the pandemic. At the start of COVID-19, the lack of quick, inexpensive and automated diagnoses simply did not exist to perform the large amount of testing needed to understand how the disease spreads. For viral testing based on DNA amplification, many steps must be performed by a qualified technician, which is cumbersome and one of the reasons why test results are not delivered quickly. These assays are also ineffective and wasteful, and require relatively large amounts of reagents. This is critical when it comes to epidemics, especially initially when the disease under test is unknown.

While there are ways we can maximize testing efficiency through pooling, Imaminejad says that if the standard workflow of a single sample is already too much for a technician, it wouldn’t be possible to ask that technician to process and handle a larger number of samples. . And the tools they use are incredibly bulky and expensive, and require installation and maintenance costs. “But robotic solutions have not been able to meet our diagnostic needs,” Imaminjad said. “So, to perform complex workflows like batch testing, we thought miniaturization would handle large samples and reduce reagents.”

Small biocompatible robotic agents

One of the goals of the microfluidics field has been the automation of laboratory processes on small scales. One problem with previous approaches has been how to move, split, or combine droplets into small ranges — less than a microliter. “Our approach using magnets is based on making magnetic droplets that are large enough that magnetic fields can manipulate,” said co-senior author Dino DiCarlo, PhD, professor of bioengineering at UCLA.

DiCarlo said the main challenges the team was able to break through were identifying biocompatible magnetic droplets and a way to animate them with magnetic fields. “One of the challenges is that doing in-droplet assays to test for DNA can interfere with magnetic particles,” DiCarlo said. “[A few years ago], we found a drug that is magnetic nanoparticles used for patients with iron deficiency, which is a great carrier for making biocompatible droplets to perform all kinds of reactions. But because these particles are so small – like 10 to 20 nanometers – they don’t have much magnetic force. So, we used electromagnets to move tiny magnets, which we call “iron robots,” that can drag droplets around. “

The iron test platform devised by UCLA researchers consists of two modules (created entirely with low-cost components): (1) a disposable oil-filled microfluidic chip with passive and active driver interfaces hosting input samples and magnetized liquid or reagents and (2) A printed circuit board, featuring 2D matrix coils (“navigation floor”), which can be independently energized for individual electromagnetically direct ferrous robots. Before the samples are introduced into the iron test platform, the samples are dropped into a multi-well plate, and a small magnetic droplet touches the sample to attract it. Then the sample can be introduced into the system using pipettes.

But once introduced into the platform, all kinds of operations, from cleavage and assembly to chromatic and electrochemical reading, can be performed on a sample. By changing the design of the microfluidic device, the printed circuit board, and the analytical algorithm, all kinds of complex processes can be tested.

Explosive diagram of a typical viral testing platform (eg, 42 assemblies). Red arrows indicate the direction of movement of the bots and drops.

Parallelism and sequencing

The UCLA researchers were also able to demonstrate parallelism, i.e. moving several robots to do things at the same time. “If you think about some diagnostic applications, not all patients come in at once; you can streamline patient samples, process them and keep things running,” DiCarlo said. “We envision a patient coming into your pharmacy or microclinic, and you can start a chain reaction new to your iron system while the others are still running.”

While the technology is an engineering feat, Emaminejad and Di Carlo both point out the complexity of the pooled test algorithms they implemented. “The aggregation algorithm is a presentation of a very complex set of operations in a powerful way because to do that, you can’t make a mistake with the splitting or mixing operations,” DiCarlo said. “So it shows how much operations can be done in diagnostic applications and beyond. You might have operations where you take bits of samples, do tests, and then go back to the sample and do something else.”

Emamingad added that viral proliferation testing requires complex assembly techniques that require many processes. “Even with the automated system that you are dreaming of, you cannot perform the number of operations needed for the low prevalence aggregate test,” said Imaminejad. “But all of these processes are being done on our chips.”

patient point test

Ferrobotics is a promising solution to expand testing capacity for pandemic preparedness and to reimagine the automated clinical laboratory in the future. “It is time to decentralize the tests,” said Imam Nejad. “Instead of a ‘point of care’, we need to think of ‘point of a person’ testing wherever people are, delivering easily localized diagnoses to people in hospitals, workplaces, schools, pharmacies and airports and running tests directly on the spot. You need to know that you can handle many samples for large-scale testing.

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