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By Simon Fogarty
The challenge of drug discovery and development is putting increasing pressure on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to boost productivity through targeted and strategic improvements in the drug discovery workflow. Automation is clearly a way to significantly improve productivity and reproducibility, but only if you make wise decisions.
Automating your drug discovery workflow can significantly improve productivity while increasing the repeatability and reproducibility of results.
You may be searching for ways to improve productivity in one of a range of applications, including genomics, cell biology, drug discovery, and protein purification & characterization. The workflows include many processes that could be automated, and many solutions are on the market. The question is, where will automation make the most difference in terms of ROI, and which solutions make most sense for your lab? Here are six questions to consider.
1. Where can I save time, increase throughput, and minimize errors?
Increasing productivity simply means generating more reliable data in less time and with fewer resources in terms of samples, reagents, and manpower. Liquid handling technology can automate a wide range of tasks that may be tedious, complex, or error-prone if performed manually including the ability to handle any labware involved. Automation can help on all levels and will speed up sample processing to increase your screening throughput.
2. Which steps are wasting precious samples and costly reagents?
Automation not only improves throughput, it also provides a great opportunity to get control over liquid handling at microliter to sub-microliter scales. This will help you do more with precious samples and use less of those increasingly expensive reagents. Look for solutions that reduce dead volumes to a minimum to avoid wasting precious reagents and samples. It is also critical to choose systems with accurate and sensitive liquid level sensing and aspiration monitoring to effectively scale down sample volumes.
3. Are protocols reproducible, and if not which steps are causing variation?
As we’ve seen before, we are in the middle of a global data reproducibility crisis. The consequences of not being able to reproduce your results can be costly, not to mention damaging to your lab’s reputation. That’s why it is critical to pinpoint any protocols or workflows that are difficult to repeat and root out sources of variability. Liquid handling automation is one of the biggest contributors to reproducibility. The optimal automation solution delivers consistent, reproducible and reliable operation based on high-precision and repeatable liquid dispensing. This can dramatically improve the performance of common protocols and highly complex methods such as NGS carried out in research and drug discovery labs, and also reduce the need for re-analysis.
4. Can complex workflows be simplified and error-proofed?
Implementing automated high precision- and reproducible liquid dispensing is a huge step in the right direction, but there are also less obvious ways to maintain control over your complex workflows and increase data reproducibility. For example, software-guided sample management and tracking will ensure that your samples go into the correct wells and ensure that reagents will be dispensed accurately, without the fear of operator error when performing tedious tasks. Look for flexible solutions that can securely handle a range of labware, from tubes of various sizes to plates with 96, 384, and even 1536 wells. The integrity and reproducibility of certain applications may also depend on having a controlled contamination-free environment, in which case the option to integrate a suitable laminar flow HEPA hood will be important.
5. Which applications should I automate?
Drug discovery involves a wide range of methods and applications. Liquid handling technology has been applied successfully to automate many workflows. Genomics, for example, which is now an ongoing part of drug discovery workflows has seen explosive growth in recent years, as the cost of sequencing has decreased significantly, fueling the discovery of biomarkers as potential targets for diagnostics and the development of therapeutics. Automating whole genome and targeted sequencing brings greater speed, precision, cost-savings, and productivity. Automation also ensures that tedious tasks such as DNA extraction, PCR setup, and preparing libraries for NGS can be performed without the risk of manual errors, while freeing up personnel for more important tasks.
The use of cells and cell-based assays to study disease and develop therapeutics requires working with living cells, which can be tedious and time-consuming. Automating tasks such as feeding and plating cells increases walkaway time and standardizes processes to increase reproducibility.
Drug discovery also requires robust automated compound management solutions, unerring sample tracking and precise dispensing. Success builds on efficient integration and coordinated control of peripheral devices, and the automation of challenging and time-consuming workflows involved in target identification and validation.
Automation can also bring significant benefits in work on proteins as potential biomarkers, therapeutics and research tools. The proteomics revolution has led to the implementation of scalable and automated plate-, tip- or column-based purification systems that can generate large amounts of data to aid scale-up. The complexity of protein purification protocols may require the integration of chromatography columns and media from multiple vendors as you develop an automated system. Here again, both hardware and software tools are critical.
Whatever your application, you will be faced with choosing which steps to automate to ensure you can generate high quality data with confidence and, ultimately, maximize your ROI. This will entail a close look at common workflows in your laboratory and an analysis of how you can achieve better end-to-end integration.
6. Should I choose an open or a closed automation solution?
Faced with the automation of your lab, you may be tempted to choose closed systems that provide ‘black box’ control with minimal manual intervention. This might be suitable when automating some very well-defined tasks but many workflows are complex and variable. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for such diverse applications, an open automation solution will provide the flexibility you need to adopt new analytical strategies, bring novel assays on stream quickly, and deliver accurate reproducible data to support you in confident decision-making. In the next article in this series we will look at precisely how this can be achieved.
Do your drug discovery workflows run like clockwork?
Let automated liquid handling ensure they do. Discover more in this infographic.