In the realm of science fiction, the rise of the robots is cause for alarm. Bar the doors! Hide the children! The robots are attacking!
But in science fact, the robots are already here. And it’s nothing to be alarmed about. At OMRF, the machines are playing an integral role in helping scientists to understand diseases like lupus and identify compounds that hold promise for treating diabetes.
In movies and television, a robot is a machine roughly resembling a human being—think of Rosie on “The Jetsons” or C-3PO from “Star Wars.” Today’s robots don’t necessarily look like us, but they do perform tasks that were once the province of human beings.
“Robots are simply machines capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically,” said OMRF researcher Patrick Gaffney, M.D. In Gaffney’s lab, robots have played a key part in identifying genes linked to the autoimmune disease lupus.
For example, a common tool in the labs is a 96-well plate, a small plastic tray that holds 12 rows of 8 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, this 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 genetic polymorphisms—changes in DNA that play a key role in disease.
In a recent project, a research team led by Gaffney used both of these robots to identify a genetic variant associated with lupus and, potentially, heart disease and certain kinds of cancer. 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 OMRF researcher, Weidong Wang, Ph.D., 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 a staggering 50,000 compounds.
“Robots have a huge impact on laboratory work, especially if you have a large number of samples to handle,” he said.
Although robots may be changing the face of science, there’s no need for flesh-and-blood researchers to worry about their 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.”