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Precision robot and integrated vision system is able to pick stem cells

28 February 2013

A dynamic British company has harnessed the precision of robots, the flexibility of machine vision and powerful laboratory automation software to push forward stem cell research.

The R-Series fits comfortably within the Class II certified cabinet
The R-Series fits comfortably within the Class II certified cabinet

Farnborough based paa (Peak Analysis & Automation), in conjunction with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, has developed pixcell, a flexible robotic system for the precise detection, isolation and picking of part or whole stem cell colonies from Petri dishes. It then transfers the colonies to mircotiter plates ready for further development.

The system comprises a high-precision robot, originally developed for use in the semiconductor industry, a high resolution camera, appropriate illumination and a novel picking head. The whole system is enclosed within a Class II certified cabinet, ensuring sterility.

The system ensures gentle handling of the stem cell colonies, improving the likelihood of them growing and thriving. It also frees up researchers from repetitive picking tasks so that they can concentrate on other, higher value activities. It operates at a level of performance equal to, or better than, trained staff, picking up to 96 colonies in 15 minutes.

The robot at the heart of the pixcell is the Mitsubishi Electric RP-Series, which was designed specifically for micro-handling. It operates with a placement accuracy of 0.005mm or one-tenth the width of a human hair, with a picking cycle time of less than 0.5 seconds.

The compact RP is normally deployed in precision manufacturing operations, such as assembling watches, mobile phones and hearing aids or for populating printed circuit boards with semiconductors. However, once fitted with a suitable working head, it can be used in a wide variety of micro-positioning applications.

In use, a Petri dish is placed on the pixcell instrument picking plate and is quickly scanned by the camera, which is moved across the dish by the robot arm. An image analysing algorithm then identifies cell colonies based on their morphology.

At this stage, an operator can select those colonies to be picked, or the picking of all appropriate colonies can proceed automatically, thanks to paa's Overlord3 laboratory automation software.  Overlord3 is simple to use, it combines instrument control with high performance scheduling - ensuring optimum throughput and error free assay results.

The robot then combines X and Y movements to place the picking head adjacent to a colony, then lowers the head through a layer of buffer liquid until it touches the bottom of the dish. A microscopic precise sideways motion then scoops the colony into the head. The freed colony is drawn into the picking head along with a tiny drop of the buffer. This procedure reduces the risk of cell damage, ensuring their viability.

With another rapid sequence of robot moves, the head is lifted clear and the robot transfers the colony to a waiting microplate. The final step is to pass the head through a cleaning station so that it is ready for its next pick.  paa managing director, Ron Belchamber, concludes:

“The Mitsubishi Electric RP is one of the few robots available that can perform to this level of accuracy, consistently over extended periods of time. It is certainly making a major contribution to many areas of advanced life science research.”

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