The Genomics Research Center (GRC) in Taipei, Taiwan, a public research institute that’s part of Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, enhanced and accelerated its drug-screening capacity after the SARS epidemic in 2003. The Academy invested 300 million Taiwan dollars (US $10,716,060) and acquired a professional device for ultra-high-throughput screening (uHTS) of medical compounds.
Today, GRC uses its fully automated uHTS device to test 1,536 substances in one cycle. In the center of the machine, used 24/7 for developing COVID-19 medicines, is a Stäubli robot.
An automated device, the uHTS conducts tens of thousands of chemical, genetic, or pharmacological tests per day. This creates the pre-requisite for identifying bio-active substances which may be the starting point for designing new drugs and vaccines.
With uHTS on board, the GRC developed an effective anti-influenza drug in 2007 and currently is focused on fighting COVID-19.
Screening drugs by millions
The drug screening machine in Taipei was designed and manufactured by GNF, a subsidiary of Novartis. GRC’s uHTS system uses a microplate – no larger than the palm of a human hand – with 1,536 drugs (each with a volume of several µL) that can be screened in one cycle. It takes about 70 minutes to run but can overlap as the next cycle can start when another is already running. Collectively, more than 50 plates – 76,800 different substances – can be screened each day.
Why is such speed necessary?
“According to statistics, it’s necessary to search for more than one million compounds to have a chance to find a lead compound,” says GRC’s Dr. PoHsun Lin.
These millions of compounds can be tested within 650 cycles (1,000,0000 compounds, divided by 1,536 drugs per microplate), and the machine works 24/7 with high speed and accuracy as the wells of the microtiter are extremely small.
The GRC stores up to 2 million compounds in its library, but not every project needs a complete screening.
“For the most common use, we keep around 100 microplates with 1,536 compounds each in our library, including FDA approved drugs, known drugs, bio- actives, small molecular, natural products, and representative compounds,” Lin says.
One single robot
The uHTS machine features several stations for storing, commissioning, handling, and screening, and is built with a Stäubli RX160 robot in the center – which is fast, precise, but very versatile as it can fulfil different handling tasks.
In the screening process, the robot first takes a plate from the incubator and puts it on the dispenser station. Protein is then dispensed into the plate. Next the robot takes the plate of 1,536 drugs to a transfer station – an incubator and two dispensers – where further compounds and substances are added. Then the robot takes the ready-to-screen plate to a reader station for detection, followed by delivery to the station where the screening starts.
Selecting the right robot
When selecting the robot, engineers at GNF considered qualities such as speed, accuracy, availability, and longevity.
“Our uHTS system has been used successfully for many years; it simply doesn’t grow old. The Stäubli RX160 robot is still on the cutting edge in terms of precision and dynamics and impresses with remarkable reliability. The system delivers top performance, efficiency, and stability,” Lin says.
Therefore, it can contribute to COVID-19 remedy research in 24/7 mode, and is why GNF still uses Stäubli robots for their current HTS and uHTS screening machines.