An enormous robot on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus is hard at work saving lives. Dan LaBarberaHe is the founder director of the Center for Drug Discovery.
“The robot can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which makes it much more efficient than humans,” LaBarbera said. “Humans are efficient, and as we know, we’re really smart and capable, but we have our limitations, and those limitations require us to eat and sleep and rest.”
Dan LaBarbera was involved in the design of COVID’s infrastructure two years ago. This was before the pandemic. He’s the founding director of the Center for Drug Discovery at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
The robotic technology provides the infrastructure and instrumentation to discover new drug therapies – cutting the screening time in half.
“Oftentimes, people think of a researcher holding a pipette and moving liquid from one container to another,” LaBarbera said. Low throughput is what I mean. It is not uncommon for this research to take several months to complete in order to obtain the results necessary to move on to the next phase of drug development. Our new equipment is more advanced and uses robotics. This is what we call high-throughput liquid handling. So rather than the typical one pipette that a human might use, our instruments utilize a 384-channel head that can stamp liquid in one shot into a plate that’s designed to measure effects on human disease.”
The robot will help find treatments for human diseases like cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and COVID.
“What this means for patients is rather than a disease like cancer being a disease of mortality, it may become a disease, a chronic disease that’s manageable through these therapies, allowing people to live healthier and longer,” LaBarbera said.
Wells MessersmithThe University of Colorado Cancer Center associate director for Translational Research. He claims the machine will change the landscape of drug discovery.
“There isn’t another center like this or that has this type of technology,” Messersmith said. “Previously, you’d have to go somewhere else, essentially a whole other state, another institution, to do that sort of a high throughput.”
The robot is now capable of doing it all. The robot is equipped with an HEPA-filtered filter system that filters out harmful particles. A disease model is then placed on a plate. Then it’s introduced to a drug compound.
“This thing can screen 125-thousand compounds against a target in a matter of days,” Messersmith said.
The drug compound is then introduced onto the plate. After that, the robot evaluates its effects on the disease model.
“I do cancer research, so you might have a DNA mutation that causes an abnormal protein that stimulates cancer growth,” Messersmith said. “So you want to block that pathway. Well, previously, if you discover that gene, there’s no mechanism for you to figure out what type of chemical compound could maybe block it.”
Researchers can now be more precise with the robot. Scott Canfield is Assistant Director for Clinic Program Development at Johns Hopkins Homecare Group. He believes that the preclinical phase of new drug therapies is the most unpredictable.
“How well do you know what’s in the body that’s creating the disease or the body’s reaction that’s creating the disease?” Canfield stated. “And then can you find something that actually affects it in the right way?”
Canfield states that the key reason we were able find COVID vaccines that work was because researchers had large study populations around the world and could rely upon the data coming back.
The COVID vaccine, however, isn’t your typical example. Take a disease like Alzheimer’s – the drug discovery process is very complicated.
“There’s going to be an ever-growing need to continue to identify different ways to treat disease and identify ways that we can do that more efficiently and better targeted,” Canfield said.
He believes that the idea of a robot speeding this process up is a promising option as researchers work to create the next generation of drug therapies.