It has been a long and stealthy takeover, but robots now dominate many leading bioscience laboratories, doing in just hours what once took days or weeks. Now the convergence of automation with nanotechnologies, biomedics and advanced algorithms proves that using robots for medical research is no longer a science fiction wish.

using robots for medical research IDR MedicalIn May of this year, Ross King, professor of machine intelligence at the UK’s University of Manchester, traveled east to talk to students at the University of Nottingham campus in Ningbo, China. His paper “Robot scientists: Automating biology and chemistry” was a vindication of theories he and colleagues first proposed almost a decade ago.

In a 2004 letter to the journal Nature, they asked whether it might be possible to automate the actual “discovery” process of observation, deduction and conclusion. This would use a physically implemented robotic system that applied techniques from artificial intelligence (AI) to carry out cycles of scientific experimentation.


Meet Adam and Eve, robot scientists

In China, as he had earlier at Brunel University in London, Prof. King named the two “robot scientists” Adam and Eve, constructed at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales. These robots form hypotheses, select efficient experiments to discriminate between them, execute the experiments using laboratory automation equipment, and then analyze the results.


Both Adam and Eve have made actual discoveries.

Adam was developed to investigate the functional genomics of yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and the robot succeeded in autonomously identifying the genes that encode locally “orphan” enzymes in yeast.

In biblical fashion, Adam was followed by Eve using similar techniques to create a machine tasked toward automation and integration of drug discovery: screening, hit conformation, and quantitative structure-activity relationship (QSAR) development. Eve uses novel synthetic biology screens that combine the advantages of computational, target-based, and cell-based assays.


Humble origins

Analytical robots like Adam, Eve or the more advanced products now being developed at centers of excellence – such as at the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation (IFF) in Magdeburg, Germany – are a far cry from the robotic systems that first entered the lab some three decades ago.

The history of a leading company in the field – Hamilton Robotics – demonstrates the progression:

  • From precision syringes in the 1940s
  • Through the first semi-automated diluter in 1970
  • To the first fully automated workstation for sample preparation in 1980.

Such workstations, which mechanically handle samples under full computer control, meet the core dictionary definition of a robot as “a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically.” Their actual mechanical or physical “work” component also satisfies Karel Čapek’s original “forced labor” definition in his 1920 play R.U.R.. This is the play that introduced the word “robot” to the world.


Future robot trends

Three decades in from the first laboratory use of robotics, it seems clear that the technology is still in its infancy. Robots may seem pervasive in today’s biomedical research, but they have a long way to evolve.

For one thing, robots cannot easily coexist with humans, needing to work in safely enclosed areas. The Fraunhofer Institute has been studying this aspect and developed LISA, a prototype mobile lab assistant with touch sensitive “skin” and heat sensors to stop her bumping into humans and vice versa.

But even LISA is likely to look as clunky as the Wright Flyer once biomedics, 3D printing and nanotechnologies really come into play. A glimpse of the possibilities is offered by the robotic inchworm pioneered by Columbia University.

Biobots like these, or the DNA spiders developed at New York University and the University of Michigan are little more than fascinating, if rather scary, toys at the moment. But they point to a future where robotics moves beyond the research lab into the operating room – or even down into the molecular realm.