A giant robot at CU Anschutz Medical Campus is busy doing lifesaving work. Dan LaBarbera is the founding director at the Center for Drug Discovery at the campus.
“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.”
Two years ago, before the COVID pandemic, Dan LaBarbera worked with experts to design it. 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. "That's what I refer to as low throughput. Oftentimes, that research may take months or two years to complete to get results that would prompt you to the next stage of a drug development process. The new equipment that we have is much more sophisticated and utilizes robotics. And 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 Messersmith is the associate director for translational research at the University of Colorado Cancer Center. He says the machine will be a game-changer in the realm 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.”
Now, the robot can do it all. Within the enclosed HEPA-filtered system, a disease model is put 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.
After the drug compound is introduced, the plate is taken to an incubator, and then the robot assesses the effects against 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. "And so you're trying 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.”
The robot is helping researchers to be more precise. Scott Canfield is the Assistant Director for Clinical Program Development with Johns Hopkins Homecare Group. He says the pre-clinical phase for new drug therapies without a robot is the most variable.
“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 said. "And then can you find something that actually affects it in the right way?”
Canfield says the main reason we were able to find effective COVID vaccines so fast is that researchers had a vast study population across the globe and could rely on the data coming back.
However, the COVID vaccine is not your average 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 says the idea of a robot speeding up that process is promising as researchers work on the next generation of effective drug therapies.