Robot takes us to a new era of drug discovery


A giant robot at the CU Anschutz medical campus is busy saving lives. Dan La Barbera is the founding director of the Center for Drug Discovery on campus.

“The robot can work 24/7, which makes it much more efficient than humans,” LaBarbera said. “Humans are efficient, and as we know we are really smart and capable, but we have our limitations, and those limitations require us to eat, sleep and rest.

Two years ago, before the COVID pandemic, Dan LaBarbera worked with experts to design it. He is the founding director of the Center for Drug Discovery at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus.

Robotic technology provides the infrastructure and instrumentation needed to discover new drug therapies, reducing screening time in half.

“Often people think of a researcher holding a pipette and moving liquid from one container to another,” LaBarbera said. “That’s what I call low throughput. Often times this research can take months or two years to get results that would inspire you to take the next step in the drug development process. The new equipment. that we have is much more sophisticated and uses robotics. And what we call high-flow liquid handling. So rather than the typical pipette a human might use, our instruments use a 384-channel head that can buffer. of liquid all at once in a plate designed to measure the effects on human disease.

The robot will help find treatments for human diseases like cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and COVID.

“What this means for patients is rather than a disease like cancer being a fatal disease, it can become a disease, a chronic disease which is manageable with these therapies, allowing people to live healthier lives. and longer, ”LaBarbera said.

Messersmith Well is associate director for translational research at the University of Colorado Cancer Center. He says the machine will be a game-changer in drug discovery.

“There isn’t another center like this or that has this type of technology,” Messersmith said. “It used to be that you had to go somewhere else, basically a whole other state, another institution, to do that kind of high flow.”

Now the robot can do it all. In the closed HEPA filter system, a disease model is placed on a plate. Then it is introduced into a medicinal compound.

“This thing can filter out 125,000 compounds against a target in a matter of days,” Messersmith said.

Once the drug compound is introduced, the plate is taken to an incubator, and then the robot evaluates the effects against the disease model.

“I’m doing cancer research, so you might have a DNA mutation that causes an abnormal protein that stimulates cancer growth,” Messersmith said. “And so you’re trying to block that pathway. Well, first, if you find out this gene, there’s no mechanism for you to determine what kind of chemical compound might be able to block it.

The robot helps researchers to be more precise. Scott Canfield is the associate director of clinical program development for the Johns Hopkins Homecare Group. He says the preclinical phase for new robot-less drug therapies is the most variable.

“Do you have a good idea of ​​what is in the body that creates the disease or the reaction of the body that creates the disease?” Canfield said. “And then can you find something that really affects him in the right way?”

Canfield says the main reason we were able to find effective COVID vaccines so quickly is that researchers had a large study population across the world and could rely on the data coming back.

However, the COVID vaccine is not your average example. Take a disease like Alzheimer’s disease – the drug discovery process is very complicated.

“There is going to be an ever-increasing need to continue to identify different ways to treat the disease and to identify ways to do it more effectively and better targeted,” Canfield said.

He says the idea of ​​a robot to speed up this process holds promise as researchers work on the next generation of effective drug therapies.

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