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Drug Discovery 2021:
From Scale to Agility –
The Automative Evolution

Author Bio

Maia Harvey is an ELRIG marketing and communications volunteer and final year PhD student at the University of Leeds, where she’s developing high-throughput assays for anti-cancer drug discovery.

At this year’s Drug Discovery 2021 event, Conference Director Ian Waddell has organised a session on SCREENING INNOVATION TO ENHANCE DRUG DISCOVERY. Chaired by Ian Storer (AstraZeneca) & Jeff Jerman (LifeArc), the speakers will cover topics such as:

  • Developments in screening strategies and methods to meet modern drug discovery challenges.
  • Advances in technologies including screening automation, the impact of AI on hit identification efficiency, as well as application of information-rich endpoints and human disease-relevant test systems.
  • Improved methods for the discovery of high-quality macromolecules.

With a long-standing career in automation, we caught up with Paul Kendall, FESTO industry segment manager for Northwest Europe and ELRIG Treasurer / Board member to talk about the evolution of automation and AI.

The Evolution of FESTO

Festo is primarily an industrial automation company, serving pretty much every industrial market, from electronics, automative, food and packaging, pharmaceutical and process through to medical devices and laboratory automation. As a company, Festo moved into medical automation around 23 years ago, and their technology is now used in laboratory instruments and medical devices such as dialysis, ventilators, anaesthetics, through to ophthalmology. “We’re like the Intel of the lab automation and medical device world!” says Paul.

Automation is increasingly important in life sciences; enabling clinical laboratories to deliver patient results faster, and helping medical technologies to advance and improve care. To support this crucial area, ELRIG is launching a new Automation event in 2022. Keep an eye on our website for more information!

How has lab automation evolved over time?

“In my view, lab automation was initially about the robustness of result and taking away human error. With automation, you get consistency and repetition that you can’t necessarily replicate with a human, because none of us do exactly the same thing two times in a row (as much as we wish we could!).” Paul comments.

Lab automation initially focused on siloed activities, such as sample prep where you move a plate manually from one machine to another or loading plates onto a plate reader. “The next step in automation, was where all the dots were fully connected, both from a physical and a data perspective. We had a lot of connected automation around high throughput screening, which was all about scale,” explains Paul, “Their requirements resulted in some very large and very expensive systems built to run a single process, even overnight.”

But what happened when that process wasn’t needed anymore, or the process was adapted? Those systems were often very difficult to change. Today automation is not so much about scale but agility. It’s about being able to run multiple targets across an automated workflow and be able to change things quickly, while also being able to connect the dots. “Historically, in a production environment, once you have a product and a design, the automation remained the same. Modern demand, which is also seen in Life Sciences requires processes to be agile accommodating more personalised products manufactured in lower volumes. In Life Sciences, this means that the automated workflows have to be agile and adaptable.,” Paul says.

What is AI’s role in this evolution?

AI is an enabling technology and goes hand in hand with automation, the connectivity of those two things is really important. You can argue that they both enable each other. The thing that AI relies on is data, and a protocol for what it does with the data. If the data is bad and the protocol is poor, the value of the artificial intelligence that results is going to be less valuable.

AI enables the value of the data, otherwise, it’s just a database – and an ever-increasing database. AI looks at using all the data to add value to a process, influencing change or driving future direction. It can assimilate far more information than a human and provide the value that we’ve just not been able to have before.

The amount of money it costs to develop a drug is eye-watering. AI could help reduce costs and timelines by leapfrogging the iterative process of drug discovery, arriving at the target much more quickly. “I’m not a scientist, so I can’t speak from a scientific perspective, but as an engineer, one question I have is: if we get to somewhere without knowing how we got there because AI made the decisions for us, how do we get back? I believe that a scientist’s interpretation and the human nature aspects of that interpretation remain really important,” Paul explains. “If you turn all of that over to AI, it becomes very challenging in my opinion.

How has COVID-19 impacted the lab automation market?

“From my perspective, I think it’s polarised the market quite significantly. Automation has been very prevalent in the drug discovery environment, but all of a sudden, because of COVID-19, there’s been a seismic shift in focus to clinical diagnostics and automation in more of a pathology setting,” Paul describes. “The drug discovery market for me has been the more established and shiny side of lab automation. The clinical diagnostics side is about a mix of either finding something or not finding something (it’s a market of zeros and ones) or genomic sequencing a target to increase knowledge and understanding. Genomic sequencing is area where the UK excels as we have seen during the pandemic.”

Throughout the pandemic there has been a huge global demand to scale diagnostics testing. This push has massively impacted sample prep, extraction and amplification. Now, the global community is coming out of the scalability challenge and entering a world of having to live with COVID rather than trying to beat it. There are many developments around systems and processes to keep our assessment of the world on a real-time level, and for us to say that we are in a safe environment. That’s either through people testing, environmental testing, or public health testing.

“We’re involved in a lot of those challenges. From our perspective, we’re trying to support everything of course, but it’s very difficult to judge the viability and validity of all the opportunities out there because everybody is trying to find a solution to the problems we’re going to face,” Paul says. “Testing is going to become an even more important part of our world. With that in mind, I think anyone interested in these topics should come to Liverpool for Drug Discovery 2021 – there is plenty on the agenda in addition to the screening innovations track that is relevant to diagnostics testing and disruptive technologies!” he exclaims.

Drug Discovery 2021 is taking place October 19-20th at the ACC in Liverpool. The free-to-attend event is Europe’s largest meeting for life sciences industry professionals. This year, professionals from across the industry will come together to celebrate the innovation and successes that we have shared throughout the pandemic. Join us, to reconnect with colleagues, re-invent the processes of drug discovery and re-imagine and create a new vision for the industry that will help the global population as we enter the next phase of diagnostic testing and drug development.

So why not register to find out more about this important topic? Register now to secure your place at this free-to-attend event!

Don’t miss out. Drug Discovery 2021 – ELRIG.