An extraordinary robot

Dr Amee George with the drug-testing machine. Photo by James Walsh. Professor Ross Hannan and Dr Amee George. Photo by James Walsh.

Robots don’t always have the best reputations – think Star War’s C3PO, iRobot or the Terminator – but at ANU, a robot that could help save lives has landed. KATE PRESTT reports.

It’s called a high throughput drug screening platform. And while the name isn’t as exciting as Terminator, it’s what this new machine can do that makes it remarkable.

With its mechanical arm and multiple pipettes, the robot will be able to test thousands of compounds at a time, helping researchers find the critical breakthroughs in the fight against disease.

The robot will be housed in The John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR).

Its chief function is to deliver a small amount of cells into hundreds or thousands of plates containing tiny wells loaded with compounds to test which ones react, showing their potential to either kill or save a cell from disease.
Not only is the machine accurate, it performs the test much faster than staff with eye droppers or pipettes.

Researcher Dr Amee George says the multimillion dollar technology will reduce screening times from years to months.

“Researchers will have the power to sift through enormous amounts of material and find what is really important,” she says.

“It is the first technology of its kind in the ACT – it’s really going to revolutionise how we do things at ANU. It will also increase possibilities for research collaboration which ultimately may lead to more rapid drug discoveries.”

Until now researchers in the ACT had to travel to Sydney or Melbourne to use such machines, and stay for months while the screens were done.The specialised robots and precision instruments will allow researchers on campus to plate out hundreds of cells and then test thousands of compounds against those cells to see if they achieve the desired results.

We want to make a difference to how we treat patients.

Dr George says the new technology will help find new biological therapies to treat patients.

“Ultimately, we want to make a difference to how we treat patients. We will be able to triage hundreds of thousands of compounds down to a handful that we can focus on,” she says.

Professor Ross Hannan, head of the Department of Cancer Biology and Therapeutics at ANU, says the drug screening facility could give new hope to patients with diseases that have failed all standard therapies, and who have no other options.

“There is now potential to repurpose drugs – there are more than 4,000 drugs in the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] approved drug library that have been approved for use in humans,” he says.

In the case of cancer, researchers will take bone marrow and tumour cells and expand them in culture and do a high throughput screen against every known compound used in humans to see if one could be used to treat the patient.

“In one to two weeks we could find existing drugs to repurpose for new treatments and rapidly set up trials,” he says.

Currently, more than 50 percent of the small molecule drugs that are used in the clinic have a component from a natural compound.

Researchers at JCSMR in collaboration with the Research School of Chemistry will analyse natural compounds from Australia’s Chemome – whole sets of small molecule natural products.

“Natural compounds are a rich source for potential drugs because they are much more complex than those we can synthesise in a lab,” Hannan says.

“Australia has some of the best collections of natural compounds in the world for us to screen against.

“Analysing natural compounds is a really hard process and a lot of people have failed in the past. We think this new technology will allow us to do this.”

Some facts about this machine

  • is one of only a handful in Australia
  • contains state-of-the-art robotics
  • uses microplates with up to 1,536 wells
  • takes thousands of images of reactions to different drugs
  • has software to measure if a drug has been effective or not.

Story taken from ANU Report.