Robot helps analyse a higher number of serological tests, alleviating demands on healthcare force

ABB’s collaborative robot, YuMi, was used in an application designed at the Politecnico di Milano, in partnership with IEO to support hospitals in serological testing for the Coronavirus. In nominal conditions, YuMi can automate up to 77 per cent of the testing actions and helps to analyse up to 450 samples/hour. 

The partial automation of the protocol for the serological tests was the work of Andrea Zanchettin, a PhD with experience in collaborative robotics and associate professor at the Department of Electronics, Information and Bioengineering of the Politecnico di Milano.

Zanchettin designed the application and programmed YuMi, a robot capable of automating well plate “pipetting” during serological tests. For each test performed on a single patient, a laboratory technician has to operate the piston of the micropipette 8 times: the human thumb has to travel around 2cm, applying a force of 1.5kg.

Carrying out thousands of tests means that the operator has to perform that repetitive movement thousands of times. It is a demanding, stressful and tiresome gesture that could lead to specific clinical disorders, such as the inflammation of the tendon that keeps the thumb in a raised position.

The serological test was developed in the laboratories of the European Institute of Oncology in Milan by a group consisting of Marina Mapelli and Sebastiano Pasqualato– two biochemists – as well as Federica Facciotti – an immunologist – based on the protocol created at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York by Florian Krammer.

How does it work? 

The robot has two arms: the micropipette is attached to the left one, whilst the right has a “hand” of sorts, with two fingers which are used to handle the plates.

The technician inserts the patient’s serum into a well plate, which is manufactured in such a way that the protein component of the virus, if it is present, adheres to the plastic. In order for the virus to bond to the plastic stably, a certain incubation period is required. The excess must then be cleaned out of the plate: this is precisely where YuMi comes in. The technician positions the plates to be washed above a tray with a weight sensor, which notifies YuMi when it is required to activate and “pipette” the cleaning liquid into the wells. The robot collects the plate and moves it into position, then draws the cleaning solution from a reservoir and fills the plate. It then draws the solution back out of each well and discards it, repeating this operation a total of 3 times: overall, the entire process takes around 3 minutes to complete. At the end, YuMi retrieves the plate and places it on the tray for washed plates.

YuMi is a collaborative robot produced and lent free of charge by ABB as part of the long-lasting, strategic partnership with the Politecnico di Milano known as the Joint Research Centre. It is a multifunctional machine that can be used to ensure repetitiveness in industry and other sectors, such as hospitals and analysis laboratories.  YuMi is certified for use in clean rooms (ISO 5).

“Robotised collaborative automation has incredible potential in the healthcare sector,” according to Oscar Ferrato, Collaborative Robots Product Manager at ABB. “We at ABB are pleased to have contributed to the development of this interesting and innovative project”.