When automation technology first became available for drug discovery, the equipment was expensive and fairly complex to use, and needed a lot of attention and maintenance to stay up-and-running. This situation limited applications to high-throughput screens in large organizations.
Lab automation tools are now more reliable and easier to use, making them accessible, not only for super-high-content compound screening, but also for more speculative applications, even for academic and basic research. Scientists are now able to use automated tools in novel ways—even in the earliest stages of assay development—and, at times, the adaptability of the technology may surpass that of the scientists using it. Automated tools bring exponentially greater efficiency, while changing many of the fundamental paradigms of drug discovery research.
“LabAutomation 2009”, to be held in California later this month, will highlight new developments and applications of laboratory automation tools. Many of the presentations have exciting implications for drug discovery. A consistent theme is how to adapt the workflow to make the most of the automation, even when that workflow is radically different from what most people are accustomed to.
For example, one of the most surprising applications to be showcased at the conference has to do with using a robot to take aliquots from frozen samples, without thawing the samples. Dale Larson, director of biomedical engineering at Draper Laboratory, presents positive results of an ongoing project, to develop a “mini ice core” method for sampling frozen tubes of blood or other fluids.
The origin of the project involves a refusal of one scientist to share samples with another, because “your project isn’t important enough to thaw my samples.” This mean-spirited refusal to share inspired Larson to investigate a way to remove aliquots from frozen samples, without exposing those samples to the rigors of the thaw and refreeze cycle.
Draper’s sampling technique actually resembles the ice-coring methods used by geologists to sample layers of ice in a glacier. A hollow needle with a cutting surface drills into the sample. When the needle is withdrawn, there is a core of sample inside the needle, which is ejected into an empty tube by a piston.
Although the concept is simple, there were some complications to overcome. Larson’s group needed to learn how to drill into the sample without creating fractures, and to drill the full depth of the tube to sample the full biochemical composition of the liquid. “We can’t have chips and fractures in the ice left behind,” says Larson “so, we had to come up with conditions that allowed us to drill in and leave behind a clean sample.”
The method can remove five samples from a 1.8 mL tube before the sample must be thawed and refrozen—that’s about 500 uL, or roughly one-third of the sample. Although most labs will want to keep track of the number of times that the tube has been sampled, a nice feature of the system is that it can sense the regions that have been cored independent of the informatics system, and report back to the operator if there is no more room to take aliquots.