Robots helping cancer researchers produce better, faster results

Scientists are using robots in multiple disciplines of cancer research such as screening, radiation therapy, biopsy, surgery, and many other crucial fields to help beat a disease that has touched and affected so many lives.

02/03/2017


Personalized medicine is one of the biggest trends in cancer research and treatment. Robotics is one of the enabling technologies that are helping scientists are working around the clock in multiple disciplines to find ways to beat a disease that has touched and affected so many lives.

For example, Notable Labs is building on the idea of personalized medicine and using a patient's own cancer cells to guide therapy. The challenge has been to create a reliable screening process for the thousands of possible drug combinations that might be effective for each patient's unique tumor.

Previous attempts that have failed have been with very manual systems, like what you would think of with scientists in labs with pipettes," said Matt De Silva, cofounder of Notable Labs, a biotech startup in San Francisco, Calif. "The biggest issue with that is the reliability and reproducibility of the data. Robotics and automation provide a reliable way to increase the reproducibility of the experiments."

Notable Labs screens 5,000 to 10,000 drugs and drug combinations against a cancer patient's cells, and has the ability to screen up to 30,000 combinations. A feat impossible without robotics and automation.

De Silva cofounded Notable Labs in 2014 after his father was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a highly aggressive brain tumor. Frustrated by the lack of treatment options available to patients with brain cancers, De Silva embarked on a journey, one in which many patient advocates find themselves as they maneuver the maze of often disparate data on cancer research.

"The reason I felt compelled to start the company was because the treatment options that I was looking at for my dad were already FDA-approved. The only thing that was standing in the way of getting those options to him was the scientific rationale for why they might be useful against his specific cancer. Robotics and automation, and some really cutting-edge biology and science, and mixing all of those together, has made that a possibility."

Even after losing his father, De Silva continues his mission to change the way cancer is treated by repositioning treatment as a patient-centered service. Notable Labs has refined its process and with a better understanding of its clinical implications, shifted its focus to leukemia, or blood cancers, particularly acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

AML starts in the bone marrow and typically moves quickly into the blood. De Silva said they found it's easier to obtain large numbers of cells from leukemia patients relative to the very few number of cells available from patients with brain tumors.

Figure 1: Robotic lab automation system helps accelerate personalized cancer treatment by testing thousands of drug combinations against a patient's cancer cells. Courtesy: Notable Labs, RIA"Each test that we run is a unique mixture of different cocktails of drugs customized to the patient's needs clinically," De Silva said.

The entire process, from the time the lab receives the patient sample to when a report of the results is sent to the patient's oncologist, typically takes 3 days.

"The ability to test the drugs on the cells the same day that you get them, and be able to do all of these experiments quickly, is really important from a biological perspective," De Silva said. "Many previous attempts involved taking cells from a patient and growing them in a lab, and then subjecting them to drugs. The problem with the 'growing' step is that you basically change the biology of the cancer cells. They began to adapt to being grown in the lab and behave less like they would in a patient.

De Silva said they are running at a much higher throughput, which means they can conduct more experiments per patient sample. This allows Notable Labs to test more drugs than just the obvious chemotherapies. FDA-approved drugs shown to have anti-cancer evidence include those for treating high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease. Even anti-depressants are on the drug panel.

Robots producing faster results

"Before we had the workcell, it took the entire day for one engineer and one scientist to handle 120 plates," said Transon Nguyen, Lead Engineer at Notable Labs. "Now, with dynamic scheduling, our robot is able to keep track of 20 different plates at all different stages in their lifetime and able to move between all the different instruments much more reliably than anyone could do manually."

He said that a day-long manual process is now reduced to about 30 seconds, the time it takes for one scientist to prep the workcell. The robot, interacting with the lab instruments and scheduling software, does the rest.

Figure 2: Collaborative robot is designed to work safely side by side with its coworkers in the lab. Courtesy: Precise Automation, RIAAt any given time there may be 3 to 5 processes happening simultaneously. Imagine trying to keep track of all that activity. This brings the concept of lights-out manufacturing to the lab. Nguyen said they regularly run automated processes overnight and over the weekend.

"Particularly with large screens, we'll kick them off in the evening and they'll run throughout the night. We'll come in the morning and our screens will be done."

Collaborative robots in the lab

Biosero, a lab automation system provider and integrator, helped Notable Labs bring together all the components of the workflow, including robotics, instrumentation, and software integration.

The robot at the center of the all the action is the PreciseFlex Sample Handler (pictured), which is a lightweight collaborative robot made by Precise Automation Inc. in Fremont, California. This 4-axis SCARA robot with integrated servo gripper is designed for benchtop applications where ease-of-use, safety, and space requirements are critical.

The robot will not injure a user or damage instrumentation even if it collides with them at full speed. This eliminates the need for expensive safety shields and allows the robot to safely operate side by side with lab personnel.

The robot is also easy to teach. The user can move it by hand to the start and end positions and let the robot controller handle the rest. There's no teach pendant, which is common with many industrial robots.

"Robotics technology has progressed to the point where they can embed the robot into the software and make it transparent to the user," said Mike Ouren, sales engineer for Precise Automation. "You can have a small room of equipment, a robot, and some really clever scientists to make all that stuff work, and you can begin to experiment with your idea at a much lower cost than it would have been 5 to 10 years ago," he continues. "That has enabled smaller organizations to do this kind of cancer treatment research."

Nguyen said the stakes are high. "You can't make a mistake because that could mean losing a patient sample. But we still have to maintain speed and flexibility. We push most of the instruments on our platform to their breaking point many times."


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