Robots are at work in the labs of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, but the efficient machines often look less like C-3PO than a refrigerator.
The devices at the Oklahoma City research center play a vital role in helping scientists understand diseases such as lupus and identifying compounds that hold promise for treating diabetes.
“Robots are simply machines capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically,” said foundation researcher Patrick Gaffney. In Gaffney's lab, robots have played a part in identifying genes linked to the autoimmune disease
Researcher Graham Wiley said machines offer reliability and accuracy that humans can't match. They're also tireless, Wiley said.
“You just set it and forget it,” Wiley said.
A common tool in the labs is a 96-well plate, a small plastic tray that holds 12 rows of eight biological samples each. While lab technicians must fill each row individually, a robot — which, in this case, looks more like a black box than a humanoid — can fill entire rows at a time. In a lab that routinely processes tens of thousands of samples, the device saves valuable time.
“Robots are excellent at doing very repetitive tasks quickly and with few mistakes,” said Gaffney. “Once they're set, machines can do some of the tedious work, freeing technicians to do projects that require more critical thinking and creativity.”
Gaffney also uses more complex robots, like the $600,000 machine that searches samples for changes in DNA that play a role in disease.
Cutting down time, errors
In a recent project, a research team led by Gaffney used both robots to identify a genetic variant associated with lupus and, potentially, heart disease and certain cancers. The project, which analyzed 30,000 different genetic variants, took eight months to gather data.
“Without the robots, it would probably have taken three or four years,” said Gaffney.
Another researcher, Weidong Wang, uses robots to screen libraries of chemical compounds for potential development as therapeutics for diabetes and other diseases. In one day, his machines can process 50,000 compounds.
“When a human being does something hundreds of times, sometime errors will occur. But the machine is basically error-free,” he said. “The machine does things so every time the conditions are the same.”
While robots can outperform humans at some tasks, there's no need to worry about job security.
“A robot cannot generate a hypothesis, write a grant, design an experiment or interpret the results of an experiment,” said Gaffney. “At least not yet.”