Laboratory Automation

chemical space. “Libraries of millions of com- pounds in buffer solutions are required for screen- ing. Utilising automation to prepare these samples quickly and accurately allows scientists to opti- mise their results, as well as their time,” said Harry Forsyth, Regional Sales Manager at Analytik Jena. This speeds up hit generation and hit-to-lead processes, which in turn increases the probability of generating promising clinical candi- dates.

The evolution of automation in drug discovery Automation has been a part of drug discovery for decades, but recent years have seen major advances in liquid handling technologies. One notable trend has been that instrument manufacturers are contin- uously striving to achieve more with less, bringing about benefits in terms of affordability. Today, even laboratories with relatively small budgets can purchase equipment capable of performing tasks that were once the preserve of much larger and more expensive systems. “Systems are generally smaller in footprint and easier to use,” noted Joby Jenkins, Director of Product Strategy at SPT Labtech, “and as a result, companies of all sizes can reap the benefits of automation without the need for huge financial and infrastructure invest- ments.” This drive for optimisation has also led to the

design of instruments with greater flexibility to suit a broader range of applications, ensuring a rapid return on investment. “The use of automated liq- uid handling systems now goes well beyond HTS,” commented Dr Rémi Magnan, Associate Director of Cellomics and Proteomics at Tecan. “Instruments are now providing solutions for com- pound management, assay development and ADME-Tox


Factors to consider when implementing automated liquid handling As the automation of liquid handling expands to cover every aspect of drug discovery, the range of available instrumentation is also growing, with systems to suit every application, laboratory space and budget. Identifying the right automated liquid handling instrument for a specific screening strate- gy can, therefore, feel like a daunting task. However, the process can be simplified by first con- sidering three key factors, namely: reliability, media viscosity and software. “The importance of reliability cannot be under-

estimated, not only of the instrument hardware itself, but also its fundamental dispensing mecha- nism. Both can be overlooked by end-users who are influenced by throughput, volume range, or price,” said Joby Jenkins at SPT Labtech. “Automated liquid handlers must deliver day-in, day-out and guarantee as much up time as possi- ble. Furthermore, as volumes will inevitably decrease to reduce cost and increase throughput, the reliability of low-volume dispensing across a variety of liquid types becomes ever more critical to avoid compromising data integrity.” Fortunately, instrument manufacturers have

made great strides in this regard in recent years, but it is important that potential buyers check the availability and responsiveness of the product sup- port offered by suppliers, along with the general maintenance requirements of instruments. For PerkinElmer’s Carola Schmidt, one of the


Metabolism, Excretion and Toxicity) studies and immunogenicity screens.” Liquid handling solu- tions are also addressing the increasing number of cell-based assays, phenotypic screens and function- al genomics/CRISPR screens to identify a better quality of hit from a physiologically-relevant test system. Software is another area undergoing unprece-

dented change. Previously, engineers with specialist knowledge were required to program most of the earliest examples of automated liquid handling instruments. Today, instruments are equipped with intuitive, user-friendly interfaces, enabling labora- tory personnel to carry out programming tasks, without the need for expertise in coding or robotics.


most important issues pertains to media viscosity: “Different media have different viscosities. If not accounted for, viscosity variation can reduce pipet- ting accuracy. Every time a medium is incorporated into an HTS workflow, pipetting accuracy should be validated. Without validation, the actual media volumes pipetted can be inexact, leading to unreli- able results. Such inaccuracies can easily harm an institution’s scientific reputation.” The third factor that is vital to the successful

implementation of an automated liquid handling system is software, which needs to be sufficiently user-friendly to enable the novice user to perform basic operations, while still allowing those with the expertise to access more advanced features and tools. “Most HTS systems need automated liquid handlers to be fully integrated with multiple devices, such as acoustic dispensers, high-content imagers and readers. This can make data tracking and structuring throughout the whole workflow a major challenge. There is, therefore, a growing need for software infrastructure that can assist

Drug Discovery World Winter 2019/20

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