Dec. 3-9, 1999

Holiday leave
ITC search begins

Casteen announces administrative changes
Faculty/Staff Scholarship applications now available
ATTN: 'Green Card' holders

Grant will help Woodson Institute map new curricula focusing on race and ethnicity

Automation could revolutionize medical research
Technology taking history into the 21st century
Youth civic effort nets $1 million
Researchers' start-up companies move to West Main Street offices
Sad during the winter? Lighten up
Notable - awards and achievements of faculty and staff
Student selected to be on 'Jeopardy!'
U.Va., city, county officials discuss transportation concerns
Note the schedule for mail services during the holidays
Hot Links - Fine and Performing Arts Commission
"Lights of Love" ceremony set for Dec. 5
Virginia Football Florida-bound
MARC personnel
Bill Faust
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.

Automation could revolutionize medical research

By Anne Bromley

Improving 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.

"The 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."

robotic systemFor 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.

The 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.

Using 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 diseases.

Already, 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.

MARC 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, 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.

As 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.

The center's web site, at, 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.

MARC 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.


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