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Robotic platform can process 1,000 COVID-19 samples in 12hrs

08 April 2020

Robotic technology, usually used to test for infections in vulnerable people, has been re-purposed to increase the UK’s testing capacity for coronavirus.

Image courtesy of UK DRI

Around 10,000 tests for coronavirus are being carried out daily in the UK, with the Government aiming to increase this to 100,000 per day by the end of this month. 

Professor Paul Freemont and colleagues from the UK DRI Care Research & Technology Centre have developed a robotic platform that can process almost 1,000 coronavirus samples in 12 hours. Each robotic module carries out testing in the same way as the NHS but can process many more samples at once.

Current tests being used for coronavirus take samples from patients and amplify tiny amounts of virus RNA if they are present, in a process known as a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). Following a UK government call for means to increase the number of tests that can be performed, Professor Freemont and the London Biofoundry facility, which he co-directs, set about repurposing their robotic RNA extraction equipment to significantly scale up this process and contribute to the needs of the UK. When he approached the UK DRI Directors with his idea, they immediately recognised its potential and put substantial financial and personnel resources behind it.

Unlike the vast majority of testing equipment worldwide, the new platform is not reliant on specific reagent suppliers. This means it is more resilient, as different test kits can be used on the same platform.

Prof Paul Freemont, Group Leader at the UK DRI’s Care Research and Technology Centre at Imperial College London and University of Surrey, said:

“This whole project was about mobilising people, equipment and expertise to contribute to efforts to combat the virus. I am fortunate to be surrounded by an amazing team and it’s astonishing what they have been able to achieve in less than two weeks. Importantly, we were talking to NHS professionals on the front line from the very start. We began by asking them how we could help and were led by them throughout the whole process.

“Getting a platform like this up and running isn’t straightforward – there are a lot of things to account for that could be the difference between success and failure, like the reliability of supply chains for sample kits, reagents and other essential equipment. We have been diversifying and stress-testing a range of supply lines to make sure our platform can be used to its fullest capacity.

“Importantly, working with Myra McClure’s Molecular Diagnostic Unit on the St. Mary’s Campus of Imperial College, and Paul Randell from North West London Pathology, we were able to validate the whole process from receipt of clinical samples in their containment facility to the final virus ‘detected’ or ‘not detected’ result.

“The great thing about a modular platform is that it can be easily scaled up and put to use in more sites. It takes little space and needs only one trained person to operate it, meaning social distancing isn’t an issue.”

Prof David Sharp, Director of the UK DRI’s Care Research & Technology Centre at Imperial College London and University of Surrey, said:

“This is a great example of the innovative technology we are developing in the Care Research & Technology Centre being flexibly applied to the most pressing challenge facing our health service. We know that older people – including those with dementia – are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The availability of rapid testing will be critical to reducing the impact of the virus in the months to come.”

Prof Bart De Strooper, Director of the UK DRI, said:

“I am extremely proud of the response from the research community to this crisis, both from the UK Dementia Research Institute and from others worldwide. It is testament to the versatility and positive mentality of researchers everywhere.

“We quickly recognised the potential of this project to add significant value to current efforts to tackle the coronavirus outbreak and were eager to free up the necessary funds and personnel to see it through.

“Many of us have been extremely frustrated and disappointed to see hard work and precious samples lost as we halt important experiments in the lab. It is heartening to see so many turning their attention and energy to help with this immediate and pressing issue.”

The platform is currently being accredited and approved but has already begun testing samples at two NHS hospitals in London. Having successfully completed validation on 251 real-life samples in blind testing, the platform began testing patient samples yesterday (6 April). It is now ready to be rolled out on a much larger scale, for which the UK DRI is now looking for support.

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