Robots boost new lab's productivity

Researchers can conduct thousands of experiments simultaneously

Steve Gladfelter/VAS

James Chen, PhD, assistant professor of molecular pharmacology, and David Solow-Cordero, PhD, assistant director of the High-Throughput BioScience Center, say that the facility is open to all campus researchers.

Scientific progress at Stanford is sure to accelerate this year with the opening of the High-Throughput BioScience Center.

The center houses instruments that perform up to 60,000 simultaneous experiments at a rapid clip. Chemical and genetic screens that would have taken more than a year can be completed in just two weeks at the center. And the facility can be used by anyone in the Stanford community who has an appropriate research question.

“The available technology alters the way researchers can think about biological questions,” said James Chen, PhD, assistant professor of molecular pharmacology. “This facility opens the door for people to do what in their wildest dreams they’ve always hoped they could do.”

In the past, scientific understanding of how life works has progressed step by step as researchers systematically studied genes and specific chemical compounds one at a time. Because of recent developments – such as the sequencing of the human and other animal genomes and the availability of large sets of chemicals, known as chemical libraries – the focus has shifted to studying huge numbers of genes and compounds in a comprehensive way.

“Until now,” Chen said, “a graduate student would balk if asked, say, to find out which of a mouse’s 30,000 genes are involved in a specific biological process by testing each one individually. He’d think you’re crazy.”

But the center will routinely perform such experiments. Chen said, “You can either ask a grad student to pipette something 30,000 times, or you can invest in a liquid-handling robot for $250,000. The new center provides a third option that is more practical for individual researchers.” While such centers are a recent development at academic institutions, pharmaceutical firms have used them for about 10 years.

Funded by the Department of Molecular Pharmacology and the National Institutes of Health, the Stanford center is housed in space provided by the medical school.

The primary workhorse at the new center is an interconnected series of robots that can manipulate up to 200 384-well plates through an entire experiment. Those plates can be stocked with a variety of ingredients, including living cells, depending on a researcher’s agenda. To each well, a different gene or chemical compound can then be added, simultaneously testing thousands of conditions.

In any given experiment, the 384- or 96-well plates move seamlessly from an incubator to a liquid-handling robot that adds the ingredients to each well according to the experiment’s recipe, and then to a plate reader that analyzes the wells’ fluorescence, luminescence, absorbance or other desired characteristics. The center also has a high-throughput microscope that allows digital pictures to be taken of each well. The resulting data flow effortlessly from the plate reader into a database, ready to answer a researcher’s questions.

“We can run the entire assay – stack the plates and let it run – and then send the data straight to the databases already formatted,” said David Solow-Cordero, PhD, assistant director of the facility.

Researchers who want to use an instrument at the center can work with Solow-Cordero to design the workflow, ramp up the culturing of cells for the experiments and set up the database that will handle the results. Since this summer, when the facility opened, he has worked with researchers from the Schools of Medicine, Humanities and Sciences, and Engineering.

Solow-Cordero is confident these and other experiments will lead to medical advancements. “If we do a couple dozen screens a year and 10 years from now

one of them leads to treatment of a rare disease that the pharmaceutical industry has not invested in, then we’ve done our job,” he said.