The robot from BUT will save the work of laboratory technicians. It could help with the COVID-19 samples at the University Hospital Brno
The laboratory technician sets up the test tubes with samples, activates the system and everything else happens automatically. The researchers from the Institute of Automation and Computer Science, Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, Brno University of Technology came up with such a solution for biohazard laboratories. The robotic workplace called openTube was created at the request of the University Hospital Brno, which is planning its pilot deployment and testing. One possible use is the preparation of samples taken from patients for suspected COVID-19.
"We started the development at a time when it was not at all certain how the coronavirus epidemic would develop and there was a real threat that the number of samples tested would be enormous. At the request of the University Hospital Brno, we decided to help in the process of processing samples taken from patients for suspected coronavirus. It was logically clear that if the development lasts longer than a month, it does not make sense given the purpose," the leader of the openTube team and the director of the Department of Automation and Computer Science, FME BUT Radomil Matoušek said.
What usually takes half a year or a year in development, he actually managed to do in a month with his four-member team. "Now, an information system that simplifies patient registration and especially the automatic identification of samples is completed and ready for deployment, as well as a pilot version of a robotic workplace for automated preparation of these samples," Matoušek added.
The system is designed to fill in the online interface with the data of the patient to be tested. Directly in the sampling tent, all you have to do is read the bar code from the ID card, which the system automatically pairs with the entered data. The sample test tube, which is equipped with a unique bar code either before or during the collection, then travels to the laboratory for processing. There, the laboratory technician places the tubes in the holder and everything else works automatically. "The samples are digitally identified, uncapped, the fluid is taken by pipette, which the robot transfers to a microtube or well in a box for 8 to 96 samples. The box again receives a digital code and identification of the position of each processed sample. In this way, a batch of samples is prepared for further processing, which is the separation of nucleic acid and the PCR test itself. The laboratory technician monitors and controls the entire process via an application installed, for example, in a tablet or smartphone," Matoušek described.
The robot used by the system is technically very advanced and so-called collaborative. This means that he can be in the immediate vicinity of a person or cooperate with them without a threat to harm them. Any light touch will stop the machine immediately. It takes the robot 60 seconds to process one sample. Although a skilled laboratory technician can handle the process a little faster, the robot, unlike humans, does not get tired and, in addition, it eliminates the potentially risky handling of the infectious sample.
The robotic technology for the laboratories of the future
The BUT robotic laboratory technician is not just a single-purpose manipulator, a specifically focused pipetting robot, or an otherwise understood single-purpose device. "The robotized workplace openTube is basically the concept of the laboratory of the future, a logical symbiosis of a man, IT technologies, cybernetics, robotics and artificial intelligence. We used a combination of automation from SMC, B&R and the universal collaborative robot ABB YuMi. If it is necessary to modify the process protocol - for example, when the type of test tubes used, their number, configuration ae changed, new instrumentation is added, or it is necessary to store pipettes elsewhere - we do not need to fundamentally or at all change the hardware, just reprogram the robotic workplace. The whole workplace has its digital twin, so for minor modifications to the protocol, the expert does not even have to be physically present, they can be done remotely," Matoušek explained.
The robot was lent by ABB for this purpose. The researchers were looking for one that would be dimensionally compatible with the laboratory, or laminar biohazard boxes in which they should work in case there will be dangerous samples. "If our solution is deployed in the COVID-19 testing laboratory, then the robot will primarily work in a very limited space of the laminar box. Our YuMi is a unique species in the Czech Republic, currently, it occurs only in two specimens, namely in Prague and Brno, and as far as I know, this is its first practical deployment," Matoušek added.
The researchers and the hospital are now looking for the best use for the robot. In addition to working with COVID-19 samples, it is used in the laboratory, where cytostatics are prepared, i.e. medicine with significant toxicity, the preparation of which is classified as hazardous work. "We are currently negotiating with the laboratories of the University Hospital Brno, the MMCI and the CEITEC MU laboratory. For the pilot implementation, we will choose a variant that will be time-efficient and will be realistically usable in the future as well,“ Matoušek assured.
After the validation phase, the researchers want to make the openTube project public so that other experts or visionaries can build on it. "In this project, there is enthusiasm and a desire to help in bad times, as other colleagues in our field did. We didn't work for money; it was a challenge. We have overcome obstacles and we know that many are still waiting for us, but we are academic researchers, i.e. who, if not us, per aspera ad astra," the team leader Radomil Matoušek concluded.