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May 16, 1990

'In the Ballpark' Not Good Enough

JAMA. 1990;263(19):2597-2599. doi:10.1001/jama.1990.03440190053024

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A ROBOT laboring away in a cramped room may be hammering the last coffin nails into public smoking.

The impersonal machine is mundane by Hollywood standards. But like much of the technology in the laboratory at the CDC's Center for Environmental Health and Injury Control in Atlanta, Ga, it defines the state of the art.

For the next several years, the robot will test 35 samples at a time, day and night, for cotinine, a metabolite of nicotine. Some of its test tubes are centrifuged while others are bathed, shaken, or allowed to settle.

The robot opens one, gripping the cap and turning the tube. It pours off a layer of methylene chloride, screws the tube back into the cap, returns it to its preordained place in the rack, and waits for the program, written by CDC researcher Dana Sheeley, PhD, to tell it what to do next.