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Device and method for automatized egg cell inspection and sorting

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Robotics innovation strengthens life science research

A university spin-off is ready to start commercialising an automated system for sorting zebrafish eggs, potentially saving researchers a great deal of time and money.

Health

Researchers use zebrafish eggs and larvae in their studies for a number of reasons. Their transparency makes it possible to observe embryonic development – which happens very quickly – while hosting adult zebrafish is far less complicated and more space-efficient than looking after mice. Zebrafish have around 85 % of the genes associated with human diseases and produce hundreds of offspring weekly. As a result, the species has become a common model for studies into genetics, development biology and toxicology. In contrast to the ease and speed with which zebrafish are produced and grown however, the manual sorting and inspection of thousands of eggs a day pose a serious bottleneck. “The main drawback is that processing large quantities of eggs and preparing them for research can be very labour-intensive,” notes EggSorter project coordinator Frank Bonnet, research scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland. “Until now, there has been no quick or convenient way of continuously screening and sorting large quantities of eggs. The only option is for technicians and scientists to dedicate valuable time to this simple but laborious task themselves.”

Automated egg sorting

An automated egg sorting system was developed during ASSISIbf, a previous EU-funded project. The EggSorter project was launched to identify whether a viable market exists for this technology, which could significantly speed up the preparation of eggs and improve the deployment of research resources. To begin with, Bonnet and his team wanted to see whether the innovation could be further developed and commercialised. “We needed to assess whether the technology was suitable for potential end users and what improvements were required,” he explains. “We also wanted to build a business plan, to see whether a company could exploit such technology and be profitable.” Prototypes were discussed and tested with potential end users, with feedback used to refine the system. “These initial tests were very useful as they helped us to identify limitations of the prototype,” says Bonnet. “We knew that the product really needed to meet customer expectations in all aspects in order to be successful. Testing therefore helped us to focus on parts of the technology that we really needed to work on.” Market opportunities were next identified, and a spin-off company incorporated during the lifetime of the project. “The creation of this start-up is really one of the main outcomes of the project,” adds Bonnet. “The company has already created four positions in Switzerland, with half of the employees originating from the EU.”

Investing in life science

The EggSorter project, completed in February 2020, has played a key role in accelerating the commercialisation of the technology. Automated screening and sorting will mean that university and industry research groups will no longer have to invest in the tedious manual task of sorting thousands of egg cells every day. The new start-up has already received letters of intent from early adopters, eager to acquire the technology as soon as it is available. The team is currently finishing the production of a beta version of the final product, which will be released in the coming months. Full-scale industrialisation is targeted for next year. “The current COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the importance of life science research,” notes Bonnet. “For example, the ability to carry out rapid tests in order to make new drug discoveries has been shown to be crucial.”

Keywords

EggSorter, egg cells, genetics, larvae, diseases, biology, toxicology, EPFL, zebrafish, ASSISIbf

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