About 35 years ago, at the beginning of my career as a microbiologist, I remember reading an article in a laboratory magazine that predicted culture would no longer be the primary method of identification in microbiology laboratories by 1990. As we are now well into 2013, it’s clear that this particular futuristic view was not on the mark. Any microbiologist worth their salt will tell you that while there has certainly been an expansion of molecular diagnostics, culture remains the primary method of identification in microbiology sections of hospital laboratories. However, the past 20 years have seen companies working furiously on the automation of many of these processes including streaking, incubating, and reading of culture plates. We first heard about these systems in the mid-2000’s and over the past 13 years they have started to show up in labs, further cementing the fact that traditional microbiology doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere.
Today the three major vendors in the market of microbiology automation are bioMerieux, Siemens and BD. They all offer varying degrees and levels of automation. They have also pushed the idea of systems that accept specimens, plate specimens, incubate specimens, and even possibly allow for the remote reading of specimens through digital images. We are already seeing this kind of remote reading or interpretation of digital images move pathology forward, towards a ‘digital future’.
The race for microbiology automation seemed to start in 2008 with the launch of the PREVI ISOLA by bioMerieux and by 2011 bioMerieux claimed to have installed its 100th system worldwide. Designed for the front end processing, it is the critical link in the building of total microbiology automation. MD Buyline saw peak acquisitions of these systems in 2009-2011, but since then activity has plummeted dramatically. The next step in microbiology lab automation came in June 2011 when Copan Diagnostics announced a strategic global distribution partnership with Siemens. Their WASPLab touted a barcode driven and conveyor-connected specimen processing system utilizing robotic plate management and image recording to automate specimen work-up.
Most recently, in Februray of 2012, BD acquired the Kiestra Lab Automation BV, a company based in the Netherlands. Kiestra Lab Automation BV offers microbiology automaton at all levels including benchtop automation, work cell automation, and total lab automation. Since this acquisition, at MD Buyline we’ve seen a flurry of activity for the BD Kiestra InoquIA. In general, the price range for these different microbiology lab automation systems ranges from $100,000 – $700,000, depending heavily on the size and volume of the lab. However, as is typical for the laboratory, the real cost comes from the supplies and consumables used by the automation, along with ongoing service costs.
While no one can truly predict the future, I expect the demand for microbiology automation will continue to grow as the demand for qualified Medical Technologists rises. With microbiology companies poised to jump on the situation, we can expect some exciting things in the next couple of years.