RTS designs and installs a dual arm, flexible robot screening platform at Merck Sharp And Dohme research laboratories
The demands being made of automation technology are becoming increasingly sophisticated, as assay formats diversify and confidence in screening automation grows.
Merck Sharp and Dohme's (MSD) new dual-robot screening system designed and installed by RTS Life Science at the company's Terlings Park site embodies the properties of high performance and flexibility.
This new Assay-Platform variant's role is to support early stage drug discovery.
Plate transport on the system is via two articulated robotic Staubli arms.
The system has two operating modes: combined, in which the entire system operates in unison, and independent, in which each robot arm acts independently to perform two different screens in parallel.
Additional flexibility is provided by the RTS Sprint software's dynamic batch scheduling features.
Whether the Assay-Platform is running in combined or independent mode, Sprint can schedule multiple screens to run automatically without operator intervention.
Each robot can access a sub-set of the system instruments.
One robot can access a room temperature storage facility, an eight tip liquid handling workstation and a plate sealer, while the second robot can also access a room temperature storage facility, but also a 96/384 tip liquid handling workstation, a 96/1536 bulk liquid dispenser and a 96/384 plate washer.
An area of overlap allows both robots to reach the 'communal' instruments: a 37C CO incubator, the plate bins, and two plate readers.
RTS has, with an eye to the future, built in space for additional instrumentation.
Karen Allison, product manager for the Assay-Platform, commented: "Sprint allows screening schedules to be created, stored, edited and run in various combinations.
"The software is dynamic, so it automatically optimises throughput and timings for each schedule as it runs.
"Once the individual assay schedules have been constructed using the sample schedule editor, they can be run individually or as part of a batch schedule, in which a list of individual screens are run automatically.
"We have even built the system maintenance into the scheduling process, so that the user can choose to run various system maintenance operations independently or as part of a batch run".
It is now increasingly common for the expected workload to change during the course of a screening run.
Illustrations could be when cell plates for a particular screen are not available and therefore the screen has to be cancelled or reduced in size, or perhaps when an extra screen is unexpectedly required.
This dual arm Assay-Platform was specifically designed to cope with such eventualities and allows runs to be dynamically edited, while they are still running, in order to change the number of plates in an individual screen, insert an extra screen, delete a screen, alter the rate of plate input for a particular screen, or delay entry of the next plate into the system for a specified time.
The option of being able to add a new screen to a run that is already in progress is a powerful one, says RTS.
During any screen, the operator has the option of making physical adjustments to the system.
The system's 'pause' button brings it to a controlled stop with all plates in storage, incubation or bins.
The operator can then add new reagent or screening plates to the system and run the instrument checks.
Once adjustments are complete, the 'start' button re-starts the system.
This dual robot system in combination with Sprint is the latest addition to Merck's centralised automation medicinal chemistry support facility.
It allows the company to provide a highly flexible screening service for multiple project teams.
The ability to add new screens to the system in a truly dynamic way is thought to have increased Merck's ability to adapt to the changing environment.