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Lab Automation is Not About Robotics Anymore. So What s a Good Robot to Do?

BOSTON, Oct. 21 - As traditional robotics approaches the limits of its usefulness in drug discovery, biotech and pharma companies, beset by shrunken pipelines and pressed for time, have set their sites on a new breed of lab automation.


According to one knowledgeable source, many of today's drug discoverers have been dragging the "kill early, kill often" mantra with them into their lab-automation departments, asking staff and  vendors alike what else can be done to cut R&D time and save cash.


"It's not really about robots anymore. And it is not about precision and accuracy," this person, a follower of current lab-automation trends, said on the condition his name and affiliation not be mentioned. "It is about the research, and about how you can tie the research with the automation technologies."


Chemical synthesis has come and gone, he said here after his talk at the 20th annual International Symposium on Laboratory Automation and Robots. "It was important in the mid- to late-'90s, but is less important across pharma today." Instead, "chemists are now making more and more smaller [chemical] libraries that are better at [portraying] structure-activity relationships."


Additionally, though "high-throughput screening may be an established discipline, and it is one way of achieving faster time-to-market, it's not necessarily the secret to organizational throughput," said the source, who oversees an automation department at one of the world's top three biotechs. "There, the elimination of false positives [becomes] truly important."


Indeed, high-throughput screening may be just the beginning. Biotechs and pharmas also want to see technology that can perform certain tasks at lower throughput but with much better results, he said. For example, single cell-based screening, in which researchers try to glean the function of a single small molecule within a single cell, "is very important as part of pathway screening, which is the current big thing," he said. "This will be a lab-automation system, a combination of software and hardware."


So far, he said, none of the leading automation companies openly occupies this space. Instead, "companies in these areas are being courted by automation players" as potential merger or acquisition targets, or as OEM collaborators. He cites as an example a relationship between Beckman Coulter and Cellomics.


Under the terms of this collaboration, Beckman Coulter's Advanced Liquid Handler Platforms will be applied with Cellomics' KineticScan HCS reader, which was designed to automate the collection, analysis, and presentation of results from live cell and kinetic HCS assays.


In addition, Beckman Coulter will distribute Cellomics' ArrayScan and KineticScan instruments in North Americaand Europe, and will be a commissioned sales agent for Cellomics' HitKit HCS reagent kits, the companies said.


"Beckman Coulter has definitely reached the point where they have begun training their people how to support Cellomics devices," said the source. "We still think Cellomics is on the edge--the cutting edge as well as the knife's edge--and Beckman Coulter has committed to support the product as if it were theirs." Asked if he considers this an overture to a potential acquisition, he said: "My interpretation is 'Yes.'"


But Cellomics CEO Lansing Taylor, reached by telephone today en route to a conference at the Mayo Clinic, said "there are no present discussions" between his firm and Beckman along the lines of an acquisition. Beckman is "a valued investor in Cellomics, a valued distributor, and a valued partner in the development of automated sample preparation," Taylorsaid. 


(As GenomeWeb reported last week, Cellomics has trimmed around half its staff in recent months and has put the brakes on a pair of its most promising technologies as it continues to chase profitability.)


Another technology on the horizon is miniaturized electrokinetic propulsion, according to the source. Though it is designed to move samples on a chip, this technology may not be robotics. It "does not have a single moving part; it's only the liquid that's moving around," he said, but added that it's considered lab automation because "software and hardware work together to run it."


Finally, there's technologies surface plasma-resonance that lets researchers perform disassociation studies to determine off-rates. "This would be a Holy Grail for some of these [automation] technology providers," he said.

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