Clever Culture Systems - Automation for microbiology labs

Born out of a partnership between LBT Innovations in Australia and Hettich in Switzerland, Clever Culture Systems develops automated systems for clinical microbiology. General manager Peter Bradley lays out the benefits of the group's automation technology and the daily challenges facing today's microbiology labs.

How does Clever Culture Systems' Automated Plate Assessment System software (APAS) work?

Peter Bradley: APAS is a platform technology for the automation of culture-plate screening and interpretation. APAS streamlines the plate review stage of the microbiology workflow. Thousands of agar plates are assessed in busy laboratories every day and, currently, each one has to be examined by a microbiologist for the presence of significant bacterial colonies. APAS automatically screens, interprets and sorts these plates, freeing up the plate-reading bottleneck in laboratory workflows and microbiologists' time - and enabling faster results.

APAS is designed to assess the microbiological growth on an incubated agar plate using computer image analysis techniques. It is intended to be used in microbiology laboratories, for clinical diagnostic purposes and within industrial laboratories, such as those used for the testing of food and pharmaceutical products.

One specific use for APAS is in screening for urinary tract infections. Here, the device includes functions for image capture - the imaging of agar plates with several light sources in sequence, where the sequence will be specific to the agar type - and image analysis - where a dedicated high-speed image-analysis computer runs a series of classification algorithms on the images for each agar plate and determines the correct next step for processing the plates. These algorithms are taught to the software by experienced microbiologists.

What benefits does APAS offer customers?

APAS benefits the customer by:

  • eliminating the plate-assessment bottleneck in the microbiology laboratory workflow
  • removing plates showing no growth and no significant growth from the workflow
  • decreasing turnaround time in patient samples by increasing laboratory workflow efficiency
  • allowing staff to focus on complex tasks rather than mundane screening of plates
  • ensuring efficient deployment of staff and resources
  • reading full plates, biplates and any streaking patterns, while enumerating specific colony types.

Are there any new products in development now?

Following on from the APAS Independence is the APAS Incubot, a smart incubator that not only incubates plates for the appropriate time, but also reads them in situ and delivers them to the appropriate output stacks for further processing or disposal.

What challenges do you face in the day-to-day running of microbiology laboratories?

Microbiology laboratories today face many challenges and there are many influences pushing for the introduction of automation.

General market trends impacting increased automation are:

  • growing demand for testing as populations age
  • reduced reimbursement and cost cutting in hospitals and managed care
  • diminishing skilled labour pools as baby boomers retire and are not replaced in the workforce, meaning experienced microbiologists are becoming harder to recrui
  • increased government regulation
  • increasingly sophisticated tests producing greater amounts of data
  • antibiotic resistance.

What are some of the key drivers of automation in the microbiology lab?

Labs need to run more tests while lowering operating costs and relying less on skilled labour. Currently, these needs are being met through laboratory consolidation, fewer staff, lower overheads and the integration of platforms. There is also a need to ensure quality and standardisation.

How far is standardisation needed in the field of microbiology?

This is an area of much debate. There are two remaining areas in clinical laboratory science that still rely heavily on scientists' involvement at the bench: anatomical pathology and microbiology. This means there are still wide variations in practices between laboratories. Over the past 20 years, there has been an increased push for standardisation from many of the microbiology societies and regulatory bodies.

If automation is to deliver its potential, a certain degree of standardisation must be embraced. In the initial days of automating the streaking process, the delivery vessels for the specimens had to be standardised. Issues such as this will become requirements in microbiology labs in the future. Laboratories will need to adapt work practices to gain the most from the coming wave of automation.

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