Why is firefly the liquid handling solution for Laboratory Developed Tests?


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Denise Grovewood, Diagnostics Product Manager at SPT Labtech, with firefly all-in-one liquid handler for LDT
We sat down with Denise Grovewood, Diagnostics Project Manager at SPT Labtech to hear her insights around the needs and challenges for LDT labs, and why our all-in-one automated liquid handler is well placed to provide the ideal solution.



What is your experience with Laboratory Developed Tests (LDTs)?

My responsibility over the last few years has centred around helping to build and run the equipment department for mass COVID-19 testing in the UK. The pandemic was really a shining example of the power of an LDT, and their value where commercial tests don’t exist. It was incredible to see the innovation that came in response to a time of need, and what we were able to achieve in such a short space of time.

Through this experience, and through designing and building other assays, I came to understand first-hand what was important for a lab when selecting equipment for an LDT. The priority was being able to get up and running as quickly and smoothly as possible, while then also minimizing downtime, and so I always opted for instrumentation that was both versatile and robust, while also being user-friendly and consistent. This was also where I started off my journey with SPT Labtech, working extensively with the dragonfly® discovery automated reagent dispenser.


How important is automated liquid handling within an LDT lab?

It’s an absolute requirement for high throughput labs – this was highlighted early on in COVID-19 testing. When performing any sort of diagnostic testing, you really want to get everything right first time, and that is so much easier to achieve with an automated liquid handler. It gives you confidence in the reproducibility and accuracy of your results.

Automation also frees up so much time for scientists to do the more complicated work. Now that I’ve experienced automated liquid handling, I don’t think I could go back to a world of hand pipetting reagents into 96-well plates!


What other factors went into your decision to choose SPT Labtech back then?

Another key question I often asked suppliers was “How good is the Service?”. When labs are under pressure to operate continuously at such high throughput, you can’t afford the downtime of waiting for a response. I was an SPT Labtech customer (and a very needy one at that!) and honestly, I have no complaints. On more than one occasion, their Engineers and Application Scientists went above and beyond for me, which I think is the reality of working with an LDT. I made some very odd requests in my time, and I always felt like I was heard. Now, having moved to the other side of the fence, I can see for myself how customer-centric the ethos is at SPT Labtech. We have a talented and dedicated team of Applications Scientists that are on-hand to work with users to optimize protocols for their bespoke applications.

It did help that dragonfly discovery was the easiest liquid handler in the lab to program, so I would readily slot it into workflows. Even then, I was happy to tell anyone that listened that the instrument was sound – and when you ran it as hard as I did that’s an important distinction.

Now, excitingly, that same technology is also in firefly®.


Speaking of firefly, can you tell us more about how its liquid handling capabilities support LDT?

firefly is the natural progression of innovative positive displacement liquid handling technology that SPT Labtech has been designing and developing for over 20 years. It combines the robust and reliable non-contact liquid dispensing of dragonfly discovery with other useful functionalities that makes it an integral solution for genomics laboratories.

To me, this robustness and versatility is a testament to how firefly has been developed with an understanding of what LDT users want. There is so much flexibility there. Although it was designed with NGS library preparation in mind, its versatility means it can slot into so many different workflows and we are seeing that happen naturally with our customers.

The dispense head can be used for 6 different reagents without any manual intervention needed from the user. The reagent reservoirs have been designed in such a way to reduce dead volumes, meaning that you’re minimizing the waste of any precious reagents.

firefly also features a pipette head, which can be used for both 96-well and 384-well formats across the same experiment without any physical changes needed to complete this.


What other firefly features address LDT user needs?

firefly's compact design is hugely beneficial feature. So much functionality fits into such a small footprint. Labs are forever short on space and LDT labs are no different.

Another key benefit is the firefly software. The recent updates and new features have been made with LDT in mind. This includes:

  • User access control: This one just makes sense! Everyone in the lab will have their own account, with their own set privileges. This also means that there will be no ambiguity about who ran what protocol on what day. The lab manager will always have access to accurate and up-to-date records, which is crucial when working with human samples.
  • Easy to create and edit protocols: firefly has been designed so that any lab can make full use of their instrument. Coding experience is not needed to write a protocol – anyone can do it, thanks to the intuitive and visual user interface.
  • Open access software: There is no restriction on how many versions you can have, or on what type of computer it needs to run on. This allows users to write a protocol at their desk and transfer it to the instrument when its ready. On a personal note, I’ve spent so much time crowded around an instrument trying to perfect a protocol that would have been so much nicer to do at my desk with a cup of tea – so this is a great ease-of-life feature in my opinion!

As we continue to work with more users operating in the LDT space, we will continue to listen to their needs and use their valuable feedback to steer future development.


How has firefly been adapted for a regulated environment?

Compliance is so important when working with any kind of diagnostics and we’ve kept that in the forefront of our minds during development. The software features I’ve already mentioned have been added to firefly for this very reason, for example, enhanced user access control, clear audit logs and the ability to recover runs if any issues do occur.


Why is firefly’s use for LDTs so important right now?

LDTs are continuing to become more complex. There is a real need to alleviate some of this burden from scientists, and firefly fills it.

Some of our firefly users had already seen the promise that it holds for LDT, but now we have made a substantial effort to package everything up to make the implementation journey smoother for our new users. Ultimately, we want users to get up and running as quickly as possible, and thanks to the hard work of our development teams, we’re now able to deliver that for LDT customers.


What do you think the future of LDTs looks like?

As our understanding of the genetic and molecular basis of cancer continues to grow, personalized medicine will become increasingly important in tailoring cancer treatments to the individual patient to improve the chance of successful outcomes. With that, genomic sequencing will probably come as standard. As sequencing becomes more commonplace and less expensive, labs will need to automate in order to keep up. I really hope firefly will be the tool people choose to fulfil this need.


Want to streamline and accelerate your LDT workflows with firely?