Hamilton researchers hope ‘robot colleagues’ will help step up coronavirus testing

A team of scientists with the Research Institute at St. Joe's Hamilton are mixing speed and safety by using robotics to test novel coronavirus samples. The Research Institute of St. Joe's Hamilton

A handful of Hamilton, Ont., scientists say they hope to meet the sudden demand for novel coronavirus test results with the help of so-called “robot colleagues.”

A team of molecular microbiologists at the research institute of St. Joseph’s hospital plan to mix safety and speed with the rollout of a robotic liquid-handling system that, when finished, should be able to confirm test results in just two and a half hours.

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Dr. David Bulir at the Research Institute of St. Joe’s Hamilton says there’s a growing need for faster turnaround times with incoming coronavirus samples, and he hopes the new robotics will be able to jump from testing 700 samples per 24 hours to about 1,500 over the same timeframe.

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“There’s so many samples that people can’t keep up with it, and so it’s a way to address the problem, to be able to do it efficiently and safely,” says Bulir.

Bulir says his team began research into ways of detecting the coronavirus in January, designing a highly sensitive test that is now used by the Hamilton Regional Laboratory Medicine Program.

Dr. David Bulir with the Research Institute of St. Joe’s Hamilton says robotics have provided much-needed safety in testing thousands of coronavirus samples.

The test detects a part of the virus that is less likely to mutate, according to Bulir, and is very effective at distinguishing between the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and other coronaviruses. He says it also remains effective since it can still detect the virus even when it begins changing its genetic code.

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“Now that we can detect COVID-19, and detect it really well, our goal is to identify more people that have the infection,” Bulir said. “To do that, we must increase the volume of testing and the capacity to test quickly.”

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Bulir’s robotics system involves a two-stage process in which infectious samples of the virus are placed inside a biosafety cabinet that inserts an instrument in each of the sample tubes, removing an inactive version of the sample for lab technicians to use.

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“Once the samples are inactivated and safe to use, there’s another instrument that’s probably the size of a pretty reasonable filing cabinet on the bench that will then take that and then process the rest of the sample, and it will be able to do it while it’s doing about 96 samples in about 90 minutes,” says Bulir.

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Researchers at St. Joe’s say robotics are helping with coronavirus test samples through a two-stage setup where vials go into a biosafety cabinet so the liquids can be safely handled. The Reaserch Institute of St Joe's Hamilton

Once fully developed and optimized, researchers hope the robotic system will be able to jump from 1,500 tests per day to more than 3,000 per day.

Bulir says the COVID-19 pandemic has been the “epitome” of translational research within Canada’s hospital system. He says the crisis has highlighted a future need to have much more collaboration between front-line operations and laboratories.

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“Seeing that we need to help increase the scale of testing that’s going on and then working with the clinical lab to implement it in that closed loop that we have here is something that I think, going forward, is going to be exceedingly important,” he says.

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Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

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