While the automotive and electronics industries, among others, have been relatively fast in adopting robotics, pharma has been lagging behind. However, as the technology available becomes more advanced, flexible and affordable, robotics now stands as a pivotal element to helping pharmaceutical companies reduce costs and increase efficiency, notably in the drug discovery process.
“Robots are an ideal choice for [menial, repetitive jobs in drug discovery] because they are easy to automate and provide a high level of accuracy and consistency”
Peter Hogg, ProClinical
Although not yet a key part of the drug discovery and development process, Peter Hogg of pharma and life sciences recruitment specialist, ProClinical, feels that there is ample scope for greater uptake of robotics at this stage of the value chain. “Many of the tests performed in laboratories today are to do with research, discovery and development of drugs, and usually involve repetitive tasks such as moving fluids and test tubes. In this way, robots are an ideal choice for these jobs because they are easy to automate and provide a high level of accuracy and consistency,” he posits.
Jonathan Wilkins of obsolete industrial automation parts supplier EU Automation is similarly enthusiastic on the possibilities of robotics in drug development. He states that “The pharmaceutical industry is increasingly making use of robotics to automate specific processes in drug development, including drug screening, anti-counterfeiting and manufacturing tasks.” Wilkins continues, “Today, processes such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) can have sample preparation carried out by robotic arms.”
While the wider public may fear that creeping automatization stands as a threat – as evinced by a 2017 Pew Research survey which found that 70 percent of Americans express wariness or concern about a world where machines perform many of the tasks done by humans – Hogg points out that, in pharma, “technology will actually create more jobs than it replaces by giving us freedom to do new work – erasing labour-intensive tasks that were once essential. What is saved on labour rebounds to increased capital availability for new ideas.” Hogg continues, “This has proved to be true historically across all industries with other advancements in technology (for example, the car and the internet) which have made some jobs redundant but ultimately created entirely new ways to earn a living.”
As an example of how the use of robots can allow researchers to bypass menial tasks and focus their time on more worthwhile activities such as real drug development and research, Hogg points to the case of US genome research equipment manufacturer SciGene, which has created a robot with the ability to prepare DNA samples. Hogg notes, “The laboratory technician or researcher does not require engineering skills but can program the robot using simple instructions. The precision is so high that robots today can put 40,000 dots of DNA onto a single microscopic slide – such a feat cannot be rivalled by human hands.”
Across the pond, in June 2018 the UK government announced a project to develop the world’s first ‘hands free’ drug discovery facility at the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Harwell, Oxfordshire. Lead scientist, Professor Adam Nelson of the University of Leeds, explains that the new facility “will have a unique design and harness robotics and AI to automate the discovery process. It will allow hundreds or thousands of candidate molecules to be investigated at a time. We aim to increase productivity by five to ten times.”
“Faster processing isn’t enough. We also want to find higher quality starting points for drug discovery to maximise the chances of success at later stages in the discovery pipeline”
Prof. Adam Nelson, University of Leeds
However, Nelson is also at pains to point out that the use of AI and robotics at the Rosalind Franklin Institute does not only affect the timeframes of drug discovery. He exclaims that, “faster processing isn’t enough. We also want to find higher quality starting points for drug discovery to maximise the chances of success at later stages in the discovery pipeline. This will enable us to remain globally competitive in bringing new drugs to the market that can meet the needs of patients.”
Writer: Patrick Burton