27 January

STRIP-1 test robot developed for COVID-19 testing

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The Hubrecht Institute and Genmab have developed a new robot, the STRIP-1 – test robot, that can process up to 20,000 samples for SARS-CoV-2 testing per 24 hours. This makes the STRIP-1 much faster than all other systems used to date. After initial development, the robot was further developed and prepared for diagnostic use by PAMM medical microbiology laboratory, Tecan and Bodegro. On Wednesday the 27th of January, Minister Hugo de Jonge from the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, saw the robot in action at PAMM. The robot is financed by the Dutch government and can also be used during future pandemics.

Researchers from the Hubrecht Institute (KNAW) and biotechnology company Genmab, together with many other collaborators, have developed a robot that can process up to 20,000 samples per 24 hours for SARS-CoV-2 testing. This means that the robot, called STRIP-1, can process more tests in less time than any other machine known to date. In addition, all samples can be tracked precisely, because they have a barcode that is scanned multiple times throughout the process. This also enables an automatic online return of test results to the tested persons. Because STRIP-1 can work with very small volumes, it uses less of the materials that are currently very scarce across the world. The costs per test will also be much lower than current testing costs. Lastly, using STRIP-1 will relieve the laboratory personnel that was overloaded during the first wave in the spring of 2020.

 

A desire to contribute

For fundamental researchers, it may not seem very obvious to get involved in optimizing the COVID-19 testing method in the Netherlands. However, during the first lockdown in April 2020, the researchers felt a strong desire to help improve the testing capacity, which was very limited. With their expertise in the field of molecular biology, they wanted to optimize the test. In a heartbeat, initiators Marvin Tanenbaum and Wouter de Laat had gathered dozens of researchers that were eager to contribute.

Automation

De Laat: “While we were working on this, we realized that the gold standard of tests, the PCR test, works extremely well and that the biggest challenge was the logistics of it all.” At the time, they worked with relatively large volumes of testing liquids in the test streets, and many actions needed to be done manually. This resulted in a limited number of tests that could be processed in a certain amount of time. “We hoped that we could organize everything in a faster and more intelligent way by using robots, so that became our focus almost immediately,” says De Laat. Through a chance encounter with an acquaintance from biotechnology company Genmab, the researchers were introduced to Martijn Bosch, the automation specialist at Genmab. Convenient detail: Genmab is the neighbor across the street from the Hubrecht Institute. However, the researchers were unable to really benefit from this – all meetings were online because of the pandemic.

 

The researchers explain the development of the STRIP-1 test robot.

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An unexpected collaboration

Tanenbaum, De Laat, and their colleagues continuously tested optimization steps with a simpler robot at the Hubrecht Institute, while Bosch designed the STRIP-1 robot according to the optimization requirements. Bosch: “Not just the new robot system, but also the whole chain of events posed a challenge. From sample collection and logistics to the test itself and reporting the results, basically the entire chain of events from patient to test and back, that was the big challenge.” This resulted in more and more organizations collaborating on the project: diagnostic laboratories, the ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, academic hospitals and others. A special collaboration between the academic and commercial world. Tanenbaum: “Everyone collaborated on this project without wanting anything back. Everyone worked on this besides their regular job, everyone was extremely busy, and yet, everyone thought this was important enough to devote an enormous amount of time to.” With financial support from Oncode Institute, the robot was ordered at the Swiss automation company Tecan and put together according to the custom requirements for this project. Right before Christmas, the robot was finally delivered and installed at PAMM medical microbiology laboratory in Veldhoven. Together, PAMM, Tecan and Bodegro further developed and prepared the robot for diagnostic use. Since then, the robot has been processing more and more tests to validate the entire procedure.

 

This animation explains the test infrastructure, including the robot, and it’s benefits.

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Future pandemics

Minister Hugo de Jonge visited PAMM today to see the STRIP-1 robot in action. After successfully going through the validation procedure, which will last until the end of January, the robot will be used for large scale testing. The Dutch government plans to order five more of such robots in the future, if the validation procedure indeed delivers the expected results. Together, these robots will be able to process more than 100,000 samples per 24 hours. The robots are not only useful during the current COVID-19 pandemic, but due to their modular structure, they can also be used for future pandemics. This enables large scale testing immediately, without overloading the regular diagnostic laboratories.

Picture Marvin Tanenbaum

 

 

Marvin Tanenbaum is group leader at the Hubrecht Institute and Oncode Investigator.

 

 

Wouter de Laat is group leader at the Hubrecht Institute, professor of Biomedical Genomics at the UMC Utrecht and Oncode Investigator.

 

 

Martijn Bosch is Associate Director Lab Automation at Genmab.

Partnership

Many institutions worked together on this project, among which Bodegro, Genmab, Hubrecht Institute (KNAW), Health Holland, PAMM, Oncode Institute, Sanquin, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy.

Press

If you would like to interview the researchers you can contact the communications department of the Hubrecht Institute, via communication@hubrecht.eu or +31 683596548