Building the clinical lab of the future with complimenting technologies

Contributing lab leaderKathrin Arnhard & Stefanie Grimm

The future of clinical laboratories is where innovation meets necessity. In the ever-evolving landscape of diagnostics, lab leaders are confronted with challenges ranging from staff shortages and budget constraints to the need for a more holistic approach to patient care. To overcome these challenges, lab leaders are looking for ways to automate and integrate new technologies in the future to complement their diagnostic offerings.

Mass spectrometry, also known as mass spec, is a powerful analytical technique for the identification and quantification of small molecules as well as peptides and proteins by its mass-to-charge ratio, which evolved in clinical labs over the last decades.1 However, traditional mass spectrometry still has some limitations when it comes to automation and integration. 

Enter the next generation of mass spectrometry, which is starting to overcome these limitations, and could benefit labs by complementing analytical technologies and expanding their diagnostic offerings. 

Today we explore insights and key features shaping the laboratories of tomorrow—automation, integration, and standardization. Lab leaders are looking at cutting-edge technologies to not only optimize efficiency but to also provide a more comprehensive clinical understanding. 

Article highlights:

  • The evolution of the clinical lab involves introducing automation, integration, and standardization to address challenges and enhance efficiency.
  • Mass spectrometry complements existing technologies, offering high sensitivity and specificity for challenging clinical indications.
  • Integrating mass spectrometry into the core lab enables synergy with other technologies, expanding diagnostic capabilities and supporting optimal patient care.
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Meeting the unmet need of the laboratory with mass spectrometry

Mass spectrometry stands at the forefront of lab technologies. Characterized by its high analytical performance, especially regarding sensitivity and specificity, it is seen by many as the gold standard for certain clinical indications.2

As an advanced technology mass spectrometry can significantly contribute to patient care by surpassing conventional methods. In endocrinology, mass spectrometry emerges as a vital asset for accurate analysis of hormones and biomarkers, unraveling complexities in endocrine disorders and facilitating personalized treatment plans.3 In Therapeutic Drug Monitoring (TDM), mass spectrometry excels in ensuring optimal medication dosages through precise measurements of drug concentrations, promoting therapeutic efficacy while minimizing adverse effects.4 Additionally, in Drugs of Abuse Testing (DAT), its precision enables the accurate detection and quantification of substances, providing a comprehensive view for thorough toxicology assessments.5

In essence, mass spectrometry addresses the diverse unmet needs, especially in regard to low measuring ranges and accurate steroid quantification, of the laboratory, offering a multifaceted solution that enhances sensitivity, specificity, and clinical value across critical domains.

Enhance clinical diagnostics with mass spectrometry

Mass spec serves as a valuable augmentation to the existing array of technologies in clinical diagnostics, creating a synergistic relationship with traditional methods like immunoassays. Take, for instance, the analysis of testosterone.5 Current state-of-the-art immunoassays efficiently yield meaningful results for interpreting and diagnosing testosterone levels in healthy men.

However, when faced with the challenge of measuring testosterone in pediatric patients experiencing precocious or delayed puberty, immunoassay technologies encounter difficulties due to the exceptionally low concentrations of testosterone detectable in these samples. This scenario may impede timely diagnosis and complicate potential treatment. In such clinical contexts, mass spectrometry emerges as a crucial technology, offering precise and accurate measurements for challenging patient cohorts.6

This example underscores the collaborative nature of mass spectrometry and immunoassays, where they operate in tandem, proving to be perfectly complementary technologies. Together, they contribute to a comprehensive clinical diagnostics approach, forming the foundation for optimal patient care.

Integrating mass spectrometry into the future core lab

Currently, mass spectrometry is often housed in dedicated rooms for specialized lab equipment, with specialized staff, rather than being fully integrated into the core lab.7 This setup presents limitations, specifically those affecting efficiency and sample workflow across different lab sections.

Ideally, in the future mass spectrometry should seamlessly integrate into the routine lab, allowing technicians to process patient samples comprehensively. This integration would enable the synergy of different technologies, such as immunoassay and mass spectrometry. As a result, combining various parameters addressed by different technologies can help to enhance the lab's overall diagnostic capabilities.

In the contemporary landscape, clinical labs grapple with various challenges, including budget constraints, staffing limitations, and spatial considerations. Simultaneously, there is an escalating demand for processing an increasing number of samples while maintaining high-quality results and delivering substantial medical value. Meeting these expectations, especially in the context of advancing diagnostics, requires a strategic integration of technologies.

Mass spectrometry emerges as a valuable solution for labs striving to navigate these challenges. By implementing mass spectrometry, labs can expand their test menu, incorporating new parameters, panel testing, and additional specimen types. This technology has the potential to provide high-quality results due to its high selectivity and sensitivity. However, it can prove even more valuable for complex patient cohorts, exemplified in scenarios like testosterone analysis. Mass spectrometry not only enhances the lab's diagnostic capabilities but also enables them to support making a difference in patient care.

While mass spectrometry has the potential to significantly improve the lab’s performance and to broaden the offering, the implementation of mass spectrometry in the lab does come with certain considerations and potential challenges.

  • Complex Technology: Mass spectrometry is a sophisticated technology, which may pose a challenge due to its complexity with respect to hardware setup, analytical workflows as well as data evaluation.

  • High Investment for Hardware: Acquiring mass spectrometry hardware involves a significant financial investment.

  • Limited Automation: The technology may require a high manual workload, as automation options can be limited.

  • Integration Challenges: Mass spectrometry may not seamlessly integrate into the core lab, which potentially affects workflow efficiencies and turnaround times.

  • Expert Training: Adequate personnel training is crucial, and the demand for trained specialists can be a challenge in the current lab landscape and limit access to this technology.

  • Service Costs and Efforts: Maintenance and service costs should be factored in, adding to the overall efforts required for effective implementation.

Despite these considerations, careful planning and strategic management can mitigate these challenges, allowing labs to harness the benefits of mass spectrometry.

Building the lab of the future

Automation, integration, and standardization are expected to be prevalent in the labs of the future. Considering the current challenges that labs are facing today, these features will help to address the challenges while promoting the need for efficiency and streamlined processes in many facilities.

Clinical labs are not expected to only deliver individual analytical results but also prioritize providing a comprehensive clinical picture. This involves leveraging and integrating optimal technologies for various clinical indications. Additionally, incorporating features that support physicians, such as algorithms combining patient data and measurement results, will be pivotal in obtaining a complete clinical understanding and facilitating informed clinical decisions.

The lab of the future revolves around bringing diverse elements together:

  • Instruments and workflows to enable fast, accurate, and precise analysis of patient samples.

  • Amalgamating results from various technological disciplines to create a comprehensive clinical picture.

  • Interpreting clinical data in a holistic and ideally predictive manner to optimize patient care.

What excites you the most about the future of laboratories?

The most exciting aspect of the future of labs is the realization of holistically bringing together patient data, and measurement results to complete the clinical picture. The prospect of labs seamlessly integrating advanced technologies, as well as automation and data-driven algorithms, to not only enhance efficiency but also to deliver a more comprehensive clinical understanding, is what drives us every day. 

This holistic approach, involving the interpretation of clinical data in a predictive manner, holds the promise of transforming patient care. This evolution is what is driving us toward a future where the lab plays a pivotal role in providing optimized patient-centric healthcare solutions.

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  1. Garg E. and Zubair M. (2023). Mass Spectrometry. Treasure Island: StaatPearls Publishing. Available from [Accessed February 2024] 

  2. Rankin-Turner S. and Heaney L. (2023). CCLM 61, 873-879. Paper available from [Accessed February 2024]

  3. Conklin S. and Knezevic C. (2020). Clin Biochem 82, 21-32. Paper available from [Accessed February 2024]

  4. Jannetto P. (2017). Mass Spectrometry for the Clinical Laboratory. Academic Press. Chapter available from,used%20to%20measure%20these%20compounds. [Accessed February 2024]

  5. Harper L, Powell J, and Pijl E. (2017). Harm Reduct J 14. Paper available from [Accessed February 2024]

  6. Banerjee. (2020). ACS Omega 11, 2041-2048. Paper available from [Accessed February 2024]

  7. National Research Council (US) Committee on Prudent Practices in the Laboratory. (2011). Prudent Practices in the Laboratory: Handling and Management of Chemical Hazards. Washington DC: National Academies Press (US). Chapter available from [Accessed February 2024]