Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Our theme for this issue is “Biotechnology and laboratory robotics.” If asked to state the most significant technological advances in recent times then computers and the internet would be high on most people's lists. Other areas that have already made profound impact but which might also still be judged to be in their infancy, are DNA manipulation and fingerprinting and the development of new drugs and vaccines.
Here, in the UK we are still crossing our fingers following an outbreak of foot and mouth disease a few months ago and Bird Flu that has just hit some stocks of Christmas Turkeys. The foot and mouth outbreak is particularly ironic as the source has been traced to the Institute of Animal Health at Pirbright in Surrey. A facility tasked specifically with the development of vaccines for the disease that was inadvertently released (possibly via a leak in a pipeline) into the outside world.
During the initial investigations it was automatically assumed that a member of staff at Pirbright had become contaminated and carried the virus outside, despite the supposedly rigorous bio-security precautions that were in place. It may well turn out that the leak came from underground pipework, but even so, the single most likely route on this and future occasions will be from the people working at the plant.
It makes sense to me that if your number one priority is to prevent a virus leaving a property that you should stop using people to do the work. With hundreds of employees arriving and departing every day the chances of accidental (or even intentional) contamination and distribution have to be significant.
Foot and mouth and Bird Flu are not currently believed to be a great threat to the human population, although there have been a limited number of cases of cross-species infection and deaths in people from Bird Flu. Of much greater significance is the possibility (some rate it an inevitable certainty) of another flu pandemic such as swept the world in 1918-1919. This killed in excess of 25 million people, more than had been killed in the conflicts of the World War I.
Every year our biologists aim to double guess nature and come up with a vaccine that will be effective against whatever natural mutation of the influenza virus evolution can come up with. Sooner or later they will get it wrong and our global economies and freedom of travel will do nothing to limit its spread.
It would be a devastating error if such a virus was to escape from one of the very labs that are working on a cure; and unforgivable if this was made possible because people rather than robots had been used in its creation.
The processing of DNA also regularly grabs the headlines, frequently allowing a previously unsolved crime that was committed several decades before to bring a perpetrator to justice, presumably long after they thought they had got away with it.
So sensitive is the analysis that takes place that again contamination by people needs to be eliminated from the equation.
So far we have covered the application of robotics under the “dangerous” umbrella for “good” jobs for robots. “Dull” is another common attribute for these jobs and here laboratory robots get top marks for helping in the routine and highly mundane task of new drug discovery. I am sure a pharmacist would baulk at the oversimplification, but from what I can determine new drug discovery involves testing a ridiculously large number of combinations of substances and seeing what effects they have on a variety of organisms.
Alexander Fleming may have discovered Penicillin by accident as a by product of his lack of rigorous cleanliness, but these days we need to be more careful.