Moving fluids with sound

C&I Issue 6, 2016

Laboratory micropipettes have been the standard technology for transferring fluids between sample vessels for decades. But now it seems they are being superseded by a new technology – using sound waves.

Acoustic droplet ejection (ADE) ejects precisely sized droplets of source fluids onto a microplate, microscope slide or other surface. It eliminates the risk of cross-contamination and the environmental waste associated with plastic tips, and slashes experimental costs by reducing reagent volumes.

‘At Labcyte, we invented the ability to use sound waves not only to do the ejection, but also to interrogate the fluid to get information about how much power to apply so that nearly any fluid can be automatically transferred, independent of viscosity or other characteristics,’ says Mark Fischer-Colbrie, CEO of Californian biotech, Labcyte.

Labcyte patented its work on dynamic fluid analysis in 2011, but the technology is now being used in a slew of applications, from combination drug screening, ex-vivo testing of patient cancer cells, to the assembly DNA constructs for synthetic biology applications. In June 2016, the company announced the extension of a collaboration with the Institute for Molecular Medicine at the University of Helsinki, Finland, to use Labcyte’s Echo liquid handling system to test personalised medicine strategies for cancer – work that has already led to the identification of a repurposed drug treatment for chronic myeloid leukaemia now in clinical testing.

The technology’s value lies in its nanolitre scale accuracy, Fischer-Colbrie says. ‘Because it’s all governed by sound waves, every drop is exactly the same as the next drop, which is the same as the next. So incrementally, we add drops to reach the required volume you want for testing with extreme precision and accuracy. You cannot possibly do that with a pipette tip.’

The fact the liquid stays in the inverted container – typically a microliter scale well plate – after droplet ejection is due to surface tension, which is ‘stronger than gravity,’ he explains.

There are literally hundreds of current applications of Echo technology, Fischer-Colbrie says, citing gene sequencing studies by renewable energy developer Amyris, where he says the system has slashed costs per sample preparation for sequencing from $72 to just seven cents; work to synthesise genes as part of the Synthetic Yeast Genome Project (Jef Boeke et al, doi: 10.1126/science.aaf6850); as well as studies in microbiome analysis, high throughput screening, protein crystallography and molecular diagnostics.

He also referred to the technology’s potential to reduce animal testing, referring to work by one group to reduce the amount of animal sample required, as well as by facilitating the development of non-animal testing protocols.

‘The ability to have control of liquids for the first time is providing orders of magnitude improvements in data quality, as well as reducing costs,’ he enthuses. ‘With over 400 publications showing the use of the technology, it’s important to more broadly get the word out to share how impactful this technology is.’

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