Medical Automation Research Center personnel (left to right):
Robin Felder, center director, Sean Graves, director of robotics,
Bill Holman, senior engineer and Ted Mifflin, director of
molecular automation. (Below) A robotic system developed at
MARC automatically loads and unloads blood samples from a
laboratory centrifuge. MARC developed the system to automate
the testing of coagulation.
could revolutionize medical research
By Anne Bromley
the efficiency and quality of blood testing, isolating DNA for
research and building robots to collect and deliver samples --
these are just a few of the practical ideas U.Va.'s Medical
Automation Research Center (MARC) are making reality in its
mission to improve health care.
real advances in science result from improved technology,"
said biochemist and center director Robin Felder. MARC, believed
to be the only university-based medical automation center in the
world, will work with a new biomedical institute being established
in Roanoke by U.Va., Virginia Tech and the Carilion Health System.
"We're moving into a new realm of increased efficiency in
both clinical and pharmaceutical laboratory science that will
result in an explosion of useful data," said Felder, who
saw his first robot in 1984 at a trade show and "realized
that was the future."
example, an automated laboratory system that's in the process
of being developed would not only prepare and analyze test-tube
samples, it would make intelligent decisions about the best subsequent
experiments to perform, according to Felder, who came to U.Va.
in '84 and cofounded an earlier clinical robotics and automation
group with colleagues here. In what would ostensibly be a virtual
laboratory, scientists would formulate the hypotheses and the
system would basically carry out the experiments in a facility
that could operate 24 hours a day.
robotic device that MARC staffers are working on for this automated
system mimics the movement and dexterity of the human hand and
arm. It would do the rote and repetitive parts of experiments:
preparing, analyzing and moving specimens. But after scanning
results of a test group, the robot's "brain," or computing
system, could alter some variable before testing another batch.
robotic tools not only improves efficiency, it can also reduce
the chances of mistakes. A process such as conducting a polymerase
chain reaction (PCR), can be tricky, said Ted Mifflin, who directs
molecular automation for manipulating DNA or RNA. The PCR process
was used in a recent U.Va. study analyzing blood for hepatitis
C, a virus people usually don't know they have until their livers
are irreparably damaged. Molecular automation provides useful
results for making a diagnosis, transferring that information
to clinical care quickly, Felder and Mifflin said. MARC is also
developing similar tools to speed the detection of several genetic
Felder and MARC senior engineer Bill Holman hold two patents on
remote control analysis with U.Va. pathologists Dr. James Boyd
and John Savory, director of the U.Va. Health System's core laboratory,
which comprises chemistry, hematology, endocrinology and metabolism.
Two patents pending and several provisional ones are jointly held
with affiliated engineering faculty, according to Felder.
invented a mechanical device that allows mobile robots to automatically
pick and deliver goods, called Pic & Place. This system is currently
in operation in the core laboratory under the direction of Savory
and Dede Haverstick. "Mobile robots are becoming more popular
in hospitals,² said Felder. For example, the Helpmate robot previously
used at U.Va. is being used by 55 hospitals around the country
to deliver medical specimens and other supplies to internal locations.
"U.Va. has more experience with mobile robot use in hospitals
than anyone else in North America," said Felder.
a non-profit, independent center, MARC assists industrial partners
in developing cost-effective and innovative solutions to medical
automation issues. The center also provides international outreach
and educational programs to help others understand and use advanced
technologies to improve human health.
center's web site, at http://marc.med.virginia.edu,
is a repository of lab automation tutorials, literature and other
educational tools. It includes an online process that allows users
to interactively design a laboratory from the ground up, going
through four steps: defining the lab space, selecting instruments,
laying out the instruments and maximizing efficiency.
also hosts the headquarters of the Association for Laboratory
Automation (ALA), an international organization of more than 1,500
lab automation professionals. The ALA hosts three international
conferences each year and publishes the scientific journal, JALA.