The field of laboratory automation has come a long way since the first systems were developed in the 1950s. Nowhere is this more apparent than in today’s pharmaceutical laboratories, where automation has gone from novelty to necessity.
Modern pharmaceutical laboratories thrive on high volume testing, conducing thousands of analyses 24/7. They also are under intense pressure to reduce costs and improve efficiency in the discovery, development, and clinical testing of drug candidates.
By adopting sophisticated software, novel automation products and smart workflows, laboratories can fine-tune production and speed up the drug development pipeline. That’s a win for patients, particularly for those with rare diseases for which next-generation therapies are urgently needed.
Today, about one-third of clinical laboratories in Europe, North America and Japan use a substantial level of automation. Installing such a system can have important benefits, such as a 70 percent reduction in error rates, and a 10 percent reduction in staff time related to specimen collection. Automation can free scientists from tedious, time-consuming manual labor, so they can apply their talents to more specialized work.1
The workhorse of automation is high throughput screening (HTS), which can quickly determine the biology or chemical actions of compounds in thousands of assays daily. HTS also can help characterize cellular activity, such as that of a binding protein, or ligand, the behavior of an ion channel or the response of therapeutic targets to drug compounds.2
Robotics often springs to mind when laboratory automation is mentioned. While that’s certainly a key part of the equation, laboratory automation comprises a range of technologies working in concert across entire laboratories and enabling entirely new and enhanced processes. For example, automation technologies can include systems that identify, sort, incubate and analyze samples and transport them through each phase of the development process.3
Every phase of laboratory workflow can benefit from automation. The pre- and post-analytic workflow (e.g., the steps needed for clinical specimen intake, testing preparation and storage) are particularly amenable to automation. Likewise, the information management systems that underlie automation have evolved from simple appliances to sophisticated platforms that manage workflow and business process.
While, advances in automation have impacted about 80 percent of testing procedures, the technology has reduce half of laboratory-based manual labor, leaving room for improvements.
Promising recent innovations include inexpensive radiofrequency identification (RFID), which permit quick and reliable real-time sample tracking. Soon, mobile robots capable of navigating entire facilities will be deployed to automatically transport samples. Speedy drones could be used to dispatch samples to their destination in a matter of seconds, or move them between facilities at a level of efficiency that’s currently not possible.
As patients look forward to the next generation of therapeutic and life-saving treatments, automation will be a critical driver of success. Many of the systems already improve the quality and efficiency of laboratories while decreasing costs, and ongoing advances in robotics and other technologies will lead laboratories closer to a near fully automated future that will contribute to improvements in patient health.
- HTS. https://www.scripps.edu/florida/technologies/hts/