Zeiss developed an integrated robotic system for high-throughput screening (HTS) and UHTS. This new approach, developed with the pharmaceutical indus try [4], incorporates a new type of microplate reader, entirely based on microscope technology. In its final release, this detector has 96 parallel microscope optics with a 96-well microplate compatible spacing, enabling the detection of 96-, 384-, and 1536-well plates. Due to the close proximity of the optics to the source of the signal, the potential advantages are increased detection speed and high signal quality. When used with high optical quality microplates, this detection technology could offer significant opportunities.

Also integrated are the JobiWell from Jenoptik and the Cytomat 6000 from Kendro Lab Products (Heraeus). The system is a self-contained unit and consists of modules. It uses a novel plate transport mechanism and can be integrated with other units through a conveyer belt transport mechanism, thus providing true scalability.

Jenoptik Bioinstruments has built a system around the JobiWell pipettor, better known as the PlateMate. It uses the rail that existed already on the JobiWell to transport microplates to and from devices that are integrated into the system. A small rotating microplate platform transfers microplates from one stage to another. Several rails can be connected using this rotating platform. One or more axes (rails) can branch out of the main axis to include additional devices, such as different readers, incubators (Cytomat 6000), plate storage carousels, etc. to support a variety of applications. In a way this approach can be considered as an extreme form of an expanded workstation, since the heart of the system is still the JobiWell.

Panasonic introduced the Hornet in early 1999 in Japan. The Hornet is a compact, totally enclosed system with a professional appearance. It contains all devices required to run applications, except for a filtration station. The space below and above the ''workbench'' is also used in an efficient way, compared to traditional robotic systems. This concept is likely to be in an early phase, although at least one pharmaceutical company is using it. Conceptually, it resembles the TekBench approach from TekCel.

There are relatively few products for drug discovery research that are designed specifically for automating an application. This is true for screening as well as combinatorial chemistry. Most products are extensions or modifications of an existing platform. The new solutions listed above are certainly innovative approaches that break with this tradition. It is to be expected that some of these products will render the drug screening process more effective.

The speed with which the biopharmaceutical industry changes its approaches requires the supplier industry to focus to some extent on platforms that can be easily reconfigured, or customized, for keeping pace with these changes. The major platforms today are the robotic systems and the workstation-type liquid handlers.

Many new breakthrough developments are related to the assay detection technology. New and more sensitive readers, new detection technologies, and new assay platforms for which these detection systems are developed appear regularly. The second area of development has been liquid handling. The miniaturization of assays (384- and 1536-well microplates) requires lower and lower volumes to be dealt with. However, many of the microarraying applications have really pushed the limit and required existing technologies to be adapted to bio-pharmaceutical applications. Examples are combinations of classical syringe pump-based liquid handling and microsolenoid valve and piezo electric dispensing. The real breakthroughs are expected in the application of microchips in drug screening. In spite of these developments, the microplate-based platform will continue to play an important role for many years to come.

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