Scientists at Cambridge University and the University of Manchester have demonstrated that their robot scientist Eve is capable of speeding up the search for new drugs and could transform the global pharmaceutical industry.
Cambridge University has been working on developing autonomous robots that can help in the laboratory for quite some time and in 2009 created Adam, the robot scientist prototype, with the University of Aberystwyth.
Adam is able to perform independent experiments to test hypotheses and can interpret findings without human guidance, but his new girlfriend Eve is even better.
Robot scientist Eve cost about $1m (£662,673) to build and is able to be left on her own for days to design experiments, carry them out, analyse samples, take down results from the experiments and then move on to design to next experiments.
Smart screening system
She uses a smart screening system based on genetically engineered yeast, whereby one strain of the yeast is dependent on a parasite in order to grow, while another strain is dependent on an enzyme similar to human proteins.
"Eve is much more robust and better at multitasking," Cambridge University's Professor Steve Oliver told IBTimes UK. "In the case of drug screening, she can search her library and select compounds that have a high probability of being active against the chosen drug target and she will prioritise screening them."
Oliver, a professor of systems biology and biochemistry who directs the Cambridge Systems Biology Centre, says Eve can offer significant savings in both time and money as scientists normally need to manually screen a whole library in order to find compounds that match the samples.
"Neglected tropical diseases are a scourge of humanity, infecting hundreds of millions of people, and killing millions of people every year," Oliver said.
"We know what causes these diseases and that we can, in theory, attack the parasites that cause them using small molecule drugs. But the cost and speed of drug discovery and the economic return make them unattractive to the pharmaceutical industry."
The smart screening system excludes compounds that are toxic to cells and selects those that block the action of the parasite protein, while leaving any equivalent human protein unscathed.
This enables Eve to reduce the costs, uncertainty and time involved in drug screening, which could speed up new drug discoveries and potentially improve the lives of millions of people worldwide.
Finding new anti-malaria drugs
In fact, the automated laboratory robot is already proving her worth.
In a study published in the journal Interface, the scientists describe how Eve has been able to identify promising new candidates for malaria and neglected tropical diseases such as African sleeping sickness and Chagas' disease.
Eve compared assays targeting key molecules in parasites responsible for these diseases with a library of approximately 1,500 clinically approved compounds.
The robot discovered a compound previously investigated as an anti-cancer drug is able to stop DHFR, a key molecule in the malaria parasite.
Although there are already drugs that resist this molecule and are currently given to over a million children to protect them from malaria, new strains of parasites continue to emerge that are resistant to existing drugs, so new drugs are urgently needed to combat this.
"Despite extensive efforts, no one has been able to find a new antimalarial that targets DHFR and is able to pass clinical trials," said Ross King, a professor of machine intelligence at Manchester University's Manchester Institute of Biotechnology.
"Eve's discovery could be even more significant than just demonstrating a new approach to drug discovery."