Robots for drug discovery

Industrial Robot

ISSN: 0143-991x

Article publication date: 7 March 2008



Evans, T. (2008), "Robots for drug discovery", Industrial Robot, Vol. 35 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Robots for drug discovery

In the of world science process automation has now become a fundamental factor, that has now become the norm for biotechnology and pharmaceuticals companies. With scientists utilizing laboratory robotics and integrating into various automated solutions, that have increased throughput and enhanced the quality of the tests performed.

Microplate handling by robotic automation in conjunction with various types of liquid dispensing systems onto microplate formats of 96, 384, 1536 is now a process familiar to most major pharmaceuticals.

The microplate format has become a standard for many biological assays such as high throughput screening (Figure 1) for drug discovery and radioimmunoassays. Productivity with these high-volume procedures has been limited by the amount of sample handling required and low-sample counting throughput. Now, however, microplate assays can be efficiently count ... The standard size of a microplate is 85£125£15mm which will accommodate all formats.

Figure 1 An example of a high throughput screening system

Most laboratories in the biotechnology and pharmaceuticals sector will have some type of robotic automation.

One example of this is the Automated Compound Store (ACS). This consists of a climate controlled chamber which can be operated at various temperatures, from 280 to þ808C, and various humidity's from 5 to 95 percent RH, enabling both biological samples and compounds to be stored safely in any environment. Within the chamber are a variable number of stacks with an internal robot used to pick samples from the stacks and present the sample to the external surroundings. They typically range in capacities of 500-20,000 samples. The ACS can store and process Microtiter Plate, Deep-well Plates and TubeRacks within the same unit.

ACS utilizes a unique tube picker to facilitate cherry picking during unattended periods. In this way targeted subsets can be compiled overnight, or while the user is attending to other tasks. Samples can then be retrieved quickly as and when required. The tube picker is novel in its design due to the fact that it must be able to select different diameters of vials. In order to do this the tube picker utilizes a dual head arrangement which automatically changes upon detection of the size of vial to be retrieved.

ACS utilizes proven robotic systems to deliver reliable and robust performance 24h a day. Compound Store Management (CSM) Software, provides an intuitive user friendly interface that offers the following.

Key benefits:

  • point and click control of all functions;

  • storage of all inventory data, i.e. barcode, plate size, last accessed, etc.;

  • constant monitoring of temp, humidity, CO2 and Nitrogen levels;

  • automatic inventory audit;

  • automatic space consolidation;

  • user friendly plate storage and retrieval; and

  • file sharing which allows seamless integration with remote systems.

The ACS module replaces the manual library storage and retrieval process using just-in-time plate delivery. New barcoded plates are introduced automatically into the ACS via the Plate Hotel where, within an inert controlled atmosphere, they are logged and stored.

Plates are then transferred for storage within the ACS. One or more ACS units can be docked together to expand, to meet the customer's capacity needs.

The environment within each ACS module can be controlled (inert Nitrogen/Argon atmosphere and temperature ambient to 2208C) to specific customer demands to maximize compound stability and integrity. When required for a screening campaign, the customer simply inputs a “pick list” into the CSM Software. Required plates are immediately retrieved from the ACS unit and transferred to the LPX microplate storage module. Processed microplates are now ready to be passed, for replication, reformatting and assay plate generation.

Alternatively, processed microplates can be manually retrieved from the on-board stackers within the LPX mircoplate storage module or directly transferred to third-party automation platforms.

An ACS system provides complete automation and on-demand compound access through an intuitive, user friendly interface.

The systems mentioned above are types of systems that are now becoming everyday acquisitions for the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.

The key to providing a successful system is to fully understand what the scientist requires (not what you think he needs) this can be achieved by documentation, by asking the scientist for a User Requirement Specification. This enables the supplier to fully understand what the user needs. The supplier in turn will write a document, called the Functional Design Specification. This document is your understanding of the process relative to the URS. Once both parties agree to the documentation outlined, A further two documents are drawn up a factory acceptance test outlining what the user will be agreeing to for the equipment provided. And finally a site acceptance test this document is a combination of all three.

By following this process and working in conjunction with scientists, some of the most difficult processes are being automated in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical Industries.

Tony EvansAffordable Automation Ltd, The Bridgewater Centre, Manchester, UK

Related articles