Researchers sought to improve the tedious laboratory task of pipetting. Their app-based solution increases productivity, improves safety, and doesn’t rely on expensive robots.

Even something as mundane as pipetting is getting a high-tech makeover and clinical laboratory scientists around the world are likely to benefit from an innovation that incorporates an iPad into the pipetting process.

Scientists at the prestigious Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently unveiled the iPipet system. This in an innovative system which employs tablet computers such as iPads to guide the tedious and often dangerous task of manual pipetting, according to a news release.

As pathologists and clinical laboratory workers know, many busy laboratories rely on robotic pipetting to avoid risky manual processes. And while technically able to perform higher volumes of tests, robotic pipetting is extremely expensive and requires technical support personnel that many labs cannot afford. This is why Whitehead’s iPad application, which makes the process more productive and accurate, is a positive development. It’s also important to note that iPipet protects technologists’ jobs (as opposed to robots), and iPipet may be easier to learn and less expensive for labs to adopt, as well.

Research Motivated by Increasingly Challenging Experiments

Researchers developed iPipet in the lab of Whitehead Fellow Yaniv Erlich, Ph.D.. The team sought ways to improve upon today’s high-volume experiments, which can result in pipetting errors that corrupt the experiments.

“Biological experiments increasingly involve large numbers of specimens, making liquid handling in these experiments a challenge,” the researchers wrote in their paper published in Nature Methods.

Laboratory pipette devices that are calibrated to help professionals move precise amounts of liquid samples from one small well into another cannot prevent lab workers’ minds from wandering, which can result in errors. Alternatively, robots have no minds to numb, but they are expensive, and subject to technical failures.

“We needed an alternative to costly robots that would allow us to execute complex pipetting protocols. This is especially important when working with human samples that are often in limited supply,” Erlich said in the Whitehead news release.

Yaniv Erlich, Ph.D.

Pictured above is Yaniv Erlich, Ph.D., the Whitehead Institute researcher who created the iPipet app, which converts a tablet computer into a “smart bench” for executing complex pipetting protocols. (Photo copyright Whitehead Institute.)

How Does it Work?

Laboratory technologists place standard 96- and 384-well plates onto the screen of any tablet computer. Once initiated, the app illuminates individual wells and directs the pipetting process based on specific designs. It essentially guides the lab technologists through the manual transfer of the samples or reagents from the source to the destination plates. The process, according to Gizmag, involves the following steps:

  • Technologists create a spreadsheet interface to enter protocols of their task such as which samples need to go into which wells.
  • Information is uploaded to the iPipet web site.
  • The information uploaded is used to generate two grid-style displays that are sent back to the iPad.
  • Source and destination well plates are placed over top of those displays.
  • Individual glowing dots (within the grids) relate to individuals wells, illuminating them from below.
  • Users are, therefore, shown, step-by-step, which samples go into which destination wells.

“Our method offers an accessible solution for handling precious samples using a ubiquitous and affordable hardware. iPipet was born out of necessity for conducting combinatorial pooling designs that require pipetting according to mathematical patterns,” wrote Dina Zielinski, an Erlich lab member, in a blog post.

The iPipet app

The iPipet app uses glowing colored dots to accurately guide laboratory technicians during pipetting procedures.

iPipet Beats Robot in Test

When tested against a liquid-handling robot, iPipet enabled the lab technologists to safely complete about 3,000 fixed-volume pipetting steps in about seven hours. After being calibrated, the robot accomplished about half those steps in the same amount of time.

To ensure the well plates remain in place, which was the only procedural difficulty the researchers experienced during the test, Erlich’s team devised an adapter that fits directly onto the tablet screen. iPipet users can have the adapters 3D-printed based on a free file that’s downloadable from the iPipet web site. The open-source iPipet system can be downloaded from the iPipet’s web site as well.

The iPipet solution is a great advance on manual pipetting. Readers will note that Dark Daily has repeatedly reported on the dangers of sucking specimens into open tubes and holding the specimen in place with backpressure while moving it into another vessel. (See Dark Daily, Mouth Pipetting: Blogger Reminds Medical Laboratory Technologists of an Era When This Was Leading Source of Clinical Laboratory-acquired Infections,” May 10, 2013.)

Clearly, iPipet provides a cost-effective solution for high-volume pipetting that’s superior to liquid-handling robots. More importantly, the system protects laboratory works’ health and their jobs. For clinical laboratory scientists and other medical laboratory professionals who often are handling specimens with infectious diseases, any method of pipetting that improves the safety of lab workers is a welcome innovation.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Innovative Scientists Update Old-School Pipetting with New-Age Technology

iPipet Sample Handling Using a Tablet

iPipet Uses an iPad to Make a Monotonous Lab Task Better

iPipet: A Creative Hack Born Out of Necessity

Mouth Pipetting: Blogger Reminds Medical Laboratory Technologists of an Era When This Was the Leading Source of Laboratory-acquired Infections

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