Synthia Gets Extreme Makeover Courtesy of National Instruments
"LabVIEW and the CompactRIO platform provide a more dependable, cost-effective, useful tool, which during the first week of use ran flawlessly and set a laboratory production record for one tracer. "
- Dean Smith,
Mink Hollow Systems
Updating a custom, mission-critical radio-chemical synthesis system prone to erratic and unreliable behavior with new software and hardware that provides a reliable and scalable alternative for use in time-sensitive animal and human studies at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Creating a compact, scalable hardware interface using the NI CompactRIO platform and the NI LabVIEW FPGA Module and using LabVIEW to create a graphically intuitive user interface for the system hardware that runs on a remote PC.
Dean Smith - Mink Hollow Systems
Three stories beneath the campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, is the NIMH Molecular Imaging Branch’s high-energy cyclotron. Here, high-dose radiation from the cyclotron is used by the branch’s positron emission tomography (PET) Radio Chemistry Laboratory to synthesize radio-tracers required for PET scans used in cutting-edge brain and neurological research.
With the PET scan imaging technique, research scientists can view the activity of the brain and neurons of a study subject in vivo. The data derived from NIMH PET scans offers insight into the neurological functioning and pathology of test subjects (human and animal) that are part of research studies in neural and psychiatric illness. These PET scans can even shed light on the chemical activity of specific receptor sites linked to particular neurotransmitters.
One of the requirements for these scans is the timely availability of a very short half-life radioactive tracer to provide the location-specific gamma ray source for the scan. The custom synthesis system built by NIMH that produces these tracers is called Synthia. The tracer has to be synthesized at the time of the study and immediately prior to the start of the scan; the half-life must sometimes be as short as 20 minutes and never longer than 120 minutes. With this narrow window of opportunity, the process needs to be nearly flawless. For example, when tracking down the chemical fingerprints of schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s at the molecular level, there is little margin for error. Any disruption in the procedure can result in the cancellation of a scan, which can jeopardize an entire study due to backlog or lack of funding for additional scans. Unfortunately, the outdated Synthia software and hardware interface continually fells short of the mark.
Synthia Needs a Makeover
The legacy system crashed with increasing frequency, oftentimes resulting in the PET scan cancellation. Each time a scheduled scan is abandoned it costs approximately $4,000. After one particularly exasperating sequence of system failures, an entire human study was canceled. Clearly, in the lexicon of American popular culture, Synthia needed an extreme makeover.
The Synthia system consists of several components including pumps; pressure, flow, radiation, and ultraviolet sensors; chromatography columns and detectors; and ovens, cryogenic traps, and their associated temperature control/monitoring equipment. All the equipment is connected via a complex network of tubing, laboratory glassware, and programmable valves. The Synthia automation software runs on a host PC that interfaces with the synthesis equipment and is used by the researchers to access and control the Synthia system.
The problematic portion of the Synthia system consists of two main subsections: the hardware used to interface with the Synthia components and the software application used to automate the control of the Synthia components. With the software automation application, the user can either manually control the synthesis equipment or run a script or “recipe” of control commands stored in a Microsoft Access database. This automation software, along with the “recipes” developed by NIMH research scientists breathes life into the disparate system components and transforms them into a state-of-the-art radio-chemistry synthesis system.
A Makeover for Synthia
The architecture of the solution involved using a CompactRIO module to interface with the synthesis equipment, which was connected to the host computer via an Ethernet connection. The Synthia automation application was rewritten in LabVIEW to communicate over the PC Ethernet connection with the embedded equipment interface code on the CompactRIO module.
Synthia Hardware Interface
The CompactRIO module with embedded LabVIEW Real-Time was virtually tailor made for this application. Because of its small footprint, it could be situated close to the equipment; (it is even able to fit inside of the lead-lined “hot cell” where the Synthia apparatus resides). With the CompactRIO, we can also run the flexible, deterministic, Pharlap operating system simultaneously with LabVIEW Real-Time for equipment control and monitoring. In addition, the multitude of various I/O modules available for the CompactRIO platform ensures that the scalability and flexibility requirements of the Synthia system are met.
LabVIEW Makes Reliable Visual Chemistry a Reality
LabVIEW satisfied the requirements for the Synthia automation software and delivered a visual chemistry user interface; and the LabVIEW memory manager ensured that Microsoft Windows OS access violations were a thing of the past.
Using LabVIEW, it took less than one day to incorporate system component bitmaps into the user interface and link the picture-ring controls to the equipment monitoring code running on the CompactRIO module, providing a real-time visual representation of Synthia operation. The visual chemistry interface makes for an intuitive, experience interfacing with the Synthia system.
During the first week of use, the new Synthia system ran flawlessly and set a laboratory production record for one tracer. As NIMH scientists continue studies that will one day lead to treatments for devastating illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s, LabVIEW and the CompactRIO platform provide a more dependable, cost-effective, useful tool to aid in this worthy endeavor.
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