Robotic neutralizing antibody testing system transforms COVID immunity tracking

  • Robotic neutralizing antibody testing system expands possibilities for accelerated sample testing 
  • System opens the possibility to scale up testing rate from 15 tests per day to over 1,000 
  • Resulting data can be used to calculate herd immunity against different strains of the COVID virus 

Imagine if one test could tell you if you were protected from the latest COVID-19 variant. An innovative robotic neutralizing antibody testing system developed by ABB Robotics and UTMB is helping to achieve this by enabling hundreds of tests to be conducted each day, with the resulting test data being used to assess individuals’ immunity against different strains of the virus. 

A key challenge for medical researchers in fighting the spread of the COVID virus has been its continued mutation. While vaccination programs have been in place in many countries worldwide, the mutation of the virus means that no single vaccine currently offers protection against every variant. Consequently, even those who have had one or more vaccinations may not be fully protected, while those who have not been vaccinated at all are potentially vulnerable to any strain of the virus. 

“The initial vaccinations against COVID were developed using genetic information from the original Wuhan strain of the virus,” explains Dr. Michael Laposata, professor and chairman of the department of Pathology at UTMB. “While this vaccination worked well initially in containing the virus, subsequent mutations have led to multiple variations which can reduce its effectiveness and still cause people to fall ill.” 

To counter this, the goal has been to develop a test that would enable researchers to quickly assess whether an individual has the right antibodies to protect against one or more strains of the virus. Using this information, they could then make decisions about how to minimize their exposure to the virus, for example avoiding areas where new strains may be present.  

Neutralizing antibody tests enable this by detecting whether a patient has developed the right neutralizing antibodies to protect their blood cells against the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.  

To date, the manual nature of neutralizing antibody testing has been slow, with tests carried out at a rate of around 15 tests per day and results available in 24 hours. The risk of infection during testing also means that tests must be performed in specialized laboratories protected to Bio Safety Level 3 (BSL3). 

Testing transformed with robots 

The automated neutralizing antibody test was developed by using the RobotStudio offline programming software to model, iterate and test different combinations of lab equipment and robot positions to develop the most effective working concept.  

The robotic solution comprises of two application cells fitted with ABB IRB 1200 industrial robots and grippers, plus additional equipment including a robot controller and a variety of laboratory devices. Together, the two cells carry out all sample handling, mixing and testing in a contained environment, eliminating the need for laboratory staff to be in contact with any potentially infectious substances.  

As a result of this process, a working system was produced from inception into operation within just 18 months, greatly cutting the amount of time typically required for a project of this type. 

“This project is a clear example of how robotics can increase speed and efficiency, while making work safer for the researchers involved,” says Daniel Navarro, managing director of Consumer Segments and Service Robotics at ABB. “Working closely with UTMB, we combined our expertise on biology, lab process, automation and software to develop and deploy an automated robotic solution that can radically advance and inform our response to the COVID pandemic. 

The aim of the automated neutralizing antibody test is to specifically detect a SARS-CoV-2 neutralizing antibody without cross-reaction with other infection, making this assay a gold standard for COVID-19 serological testing. The resulting data will then be used both by the person being tested and by researchers to better understand immunity from vaccination or infection. The data will also inform local policymakers’ decisions on how to minimize the risk of further infection, such as avoiding virus hotspots. 

Using robots has transformed the rate of neutralizing antibody testing whilst also minimizing the risk of infection. Currently operating at a rate of 400 to 500 tests per day, the robotic system could scale up to 1,000 tests if required. In contrast to manual laboratory testing, which requires large numbers of highly trained staff, the automated system needs just one person to be present to ensure that the sampling systems are loaded and to supervise the cells. 

“Expanding the rate of daily testing is key to building up a valuable bank of neutralizing antibody data that can be used to start assessing individual immunity profiles and shaping vaccination programmes,” says Dr Laposata. “The automated system we’ve developed with ABB now enables us to achieve this, with the ability to scale up even further if we need to.” 

The automated solution is the result of one and a half years of development, with UTMB working closely in partnership with ABB to find the best way of automating the antibody testing process. With ABB and UTMB already having worked together previously, there was already a good relationship in place, which has grown further throughout the course of the automated antibody testing project.  

“What we managed to achieve in this project within such a short space of is extraordinary—many multimillion-dollar companies take several years to create solutions like the one we’ve developed in a fraction of the time,” says Juan Garcia, director of Laboratory Services at UTMB. 
“None of what we’ve achieved could have been done without ABB or any of the other parties involved in this project. From the creation and simulation of a working concept in RobotStudio software through to delivering the physical automated testing cells that are now in use in our laboratory, this is the greatest experience of teamwork I have witnessed in 35 years in this business,” says Dr Laposata. 

A further benefit of the automated system is its ability to be used for other types of virus testing. 

“The ability of the cells to carry out high volume testing in a safe environment means they can be used for virtually any type of virus,” explains ABB’s Daniel Navarro. “From ABB’s perspective, the issues involved are the same as automating any materials handling process – in this application, it’s just a case of bringing biology and chemistry together to achieve the required solution.” 

The project is just one a of several projects worldwide where ABB robots are being used to help find ways to protect against COVID.  


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