New robotic system to fast-track drug development

A new robotic system at The John Curtin School of Medical Research will fast-track the development of new drugs to fight cancer and other diseases.

The High Throughput Robotic Target and Drug Discovery Platform will enable researchers to test thousands of possible drug compounds in the hope of identifying new treatments.

The screening facility also has genome-editing capability which allows scientists to target every gene in the genome. This is an extremely powerful tool for researchers, because they can identify specific genes that might be potential drug targets.

“This multimillion-dollar equipment will cut screening times from years to months,” says Professor Ross Hannan, Head of the ACRF Department of Cancer Biology and Therapeutics at JCSMR.

The robotic system will allow researchers to test whether existing drugs are effective treatments for diseases in addition to those for which they are currently used.

The process of developing a new drug from scratch can take years, as scientists need to ensure it is safe to use. A new drug that kills a disease is no use if it kills the human as well.

With a bank of around 4000 FDA drugs already approved for use in humans, testing for unexpected positive effects is a worthwhile exercise says Dr Amee George, Manager of the Target and Drug Discovery Platform at JCSMR.

“In addition to developing new drugs which can take many years to reach the clinic, we are also looking at repurposing existing drugs and developing new combinations of approved drugs,” says Dr George.

Professor Hannan says the technology could give new hope to patients with diseases that are unresponsive to all standard therapies, and who have no other options.

“It provides a great opportunity for patients with a cancer that doesn’t respond to standard treatment, as we can test thousands of drugs very quickly,” says Dr George.

“It is also important for rare diseases which are often not investigated because it is not in the financial interests of pharmaceutical companies to research them,” says Dr George.

Professor Hannan says that in the case of cancer, researchers will be able to take bone marrow and tumour cells, grow them in culture, and screen every known compound currently approved for use in humans against the cells to see if one could be used to treat the patient.

“In one to two weeks we could identify existing drugs, repurpose them for new treatments, and rapidly set up trials,” he says.

This is possible because of the sheer volume of testing throughput enabled by the robotics.

“We use microplates that contain up to 1536 wells. They are very tricky to pipette into by hand. The robotics are quicker and more accurate when testing large libraries, so we can test thousands of drugs or gene targets in a matter of days,” says Dr George.

While the technology has been around for the last ten years there have been recent significant advances. The new technology is much quicker and more sophisticated. The robotic system also results in far better quality control compared to a manual approach.

The Target and Drug Discovery Platform was funded in part by a $2 million Australian Cancer Research Foundation grant, awarded in 2015, to provide the equipment to develop new therapies for disease including screening purified compounds extracted from native Australian plants for anti-cancer properties.

Published in Research Highlights – The John Curtin School of Medical Research, ANU, May 2017.

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