scrappy, fecund, inventive copies of ourselves.”
— Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies
Putting disease on the run with robots
Not many words can make humans cringe more than that of cancer. No human needs to be told what the insidious workings of cancer cells can do to a human body. Not many humans have yet to be touched, either personally, through family or with friends, by the ravages of cancer.
If our greatest disease enemy, as Dr. Mukherjee claims, is a copy of ourselves, then maybe we need a copy of ourselves to destroy it.
Maybe brilliant humans working together with brilliant robots will finally and to a finality solve the evasive riddle of this dreaded disease… and many other diseases as well.
Would scary perceptions of robots change if it’s a robot that forever vanquishes mankind’s most deadly disease?
Would there ever be enough human workers to fill the medical and pharmaceutical job openings that would be created if all diseases were put on the run by humans and robots working in concert?
Remember, it took a machine to sequence the human genome, and that happened in 2003. In the dozen intervening years, machines in medicine and pharmaceuticals have grown exponentially.
Commonplace today has become the sight of working robots in pharmaceutical laboratories?pharmabots.
Dr. Ross King and his mates from the University of Manchester (Institute of Biotechnology), together with a tireless robot scientist named Eve — capable of screening potential drugs almost completely independently — are breaking new ground together in the hunt for new compounds to treat disease.
As the team wrote in its recent paper on cheaper, faster drug development: “New drugs are generally slow (more than 10 years) and expensive (more than $1 billion) to discover and develop. Consequently tropical diseases, malaria, schistosomiasis, Chagas’ disease, etc., which kill millions of people and infect hundreds of millions of others are neglected, and ‘orphan’ diseases with few sufferers remain untreatable.”
“More generally, the pharmaceutical industry is struggling to cope with spiraling drug discovery and development costs.”
Eve, the pharmabot? what the team likes to refer to as a robot scientist?has already shown great progress. And the process is remarkably simple and fast, Ross told Chemistry World.
“The idea is to automate scientific research. You tell the system about the area of research you’re interested in — and then the computer has an automated way of forming novel hypotheses about that area of science. It can then design experiments to test these hypotheses and the lab robots go ahead and actually do the experiments.”
“Eve’s predecessor — Adam — carried out genetic experiments in yeast and became the first robotic system to independently make a scientific discovery.” Adam correctly hypothesized that certain genes in baker’s yeast code for specific enzymes which catalyze biochemical reactions in yeast.”
Eve was designed specifically for drug development and the team initially chose to focus on neglected tropical diseases. Already the results have been promising: Eve found that “the anti-cancer compound TNP-470 can also attack the malarial parasite Plasmodium vivax by inhibiting an essential enzyme. This compound is now being looked at in Brazil, where this form of malaria is prevalent.”
“Eve’s artificial intelligence — a set of ‘active learning’ algorithms,” reports Scientific American, “added onto ‘quantitative structure activity relationship’ or QSAR capabilities, which set up to find promising leads faster. After working through a ‘learning set’ of around 5,000 molecules, the AI gleans characteristics of keys that fit best with the locks. Then it uses those characteristics to predict which remaining members of the collection are more likely to be hits, selecting and testing only them.”
“Pharmaceutical companies often have to screen hundreds of thousands of compounds to find hits that tell them about the nature of the lock. These hits are never the exact, perfect key needed to treat a disease.”
In future, King says, “robot scientists like Eve could be used by pharmaceutical companies to streamline the drug development process, or explore potential new functions for existing drugs. ‘We found some really interesting compounds,’ he said. ‘And there are even more exciting results that we have yet to report.'”
The Eva system
As for the assembly of the Eva system, King says “individual robotic arms, liquid handlers, etc. were taken off the shelf from a variety of companies. We employed PAA (Peak Analysis & Automation Inc.) to integrate the equipment and put it together. In addition to Mitsubishi robots, Eve uses PerkinElmer Evo/Multiprobe, and Overlord software by PAA.