Three Women Pioneering a New Approach to Biological R&D
"Being a biologist is not about your pipetting skills but about applying knowledge and critical thinking to design meaningful experiments. Automation will help in that matter by increasing traceability and reproducibility and by linking the datasets together but the scientists will always be needed to make sense of the data."
These are the words of Dr. Emilie Fritsch, a field application scientist at Synthace who is driving a brand new approach to biology. While some biologists may fear that automation will replace them, many have accepted that advanced automation tools will significantly strengthen and accelerate R&D. To meet this need, Synthace is taking a computer-aided approach to biology: by developing the software platform Antha, Synthace is aiming to provide scientists with robust automation systems that increase throughput and reduce experimental time, therefore speeding up the R&D process and ultimately revolutionising biology.
Computer-aided biology (CAB), centred around liquid handling robots enabled by flexible automation, is an emerging trend which adopts concepts that have been common across other industries for decades. The automobile, aeronautics, and architecture industries all use computer-aided tools to rapidly design, simulate, test, and refine their products. Meanwhile, biologists are often limited by slow science and solutions that are difficult to scale up, and some are affected by repetitive strain injury from years of pipetting.
To celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11th, we share insights from women who are pioneering computer-aided approaches to biology in 2020.
The computer-aided biology approach and its impact
An engineering approach to biology is expected to dramatically accelerate the development of biological therapies. In fact, that is exactly what Keltoum Boukra is working on. As the automation team lead at LabGenius, Keltoum is helping the biotech company develop new protein therapeutics faster and more efficiently. Using a combination of synthetic biology, automation, and machine learning, Keltoum drives a multi-disciplinary team to develop EVA, an automated engine that performs design-build-test-learn cycles, in order to find new therapeutics.
Keltoum explains the multi-faceted benefits of automation and how it helps facilitate biological R&D:
“Because some biological protocols are error-prone and hard to perform by hand (for instance, 384-well format assays), automation can improve reproducibility and reliability of these. For some protocols, the walk-away time that automation offers is beneficial.
In LabGenius' case, the data quality aspect is the most valuable part: by considerably reducing the variability between runs and generating more trustworthy data, automation supports our machine-learning algorithms to make more accurate predictions and ultimately generate better therapeutic proteins.”
This real-world positive impact is a major motivating factor for Michelle Chen, a software developer at Synthace. On reflection, she noted that when considering job opportunities, it was important for her to work with “people doing good for the world”, and this is what attracted her to Synthace. Michelle says that one exciting part of software development is seeing its impact and refining it further:
“In software development, it is really exciting to see the different pieces come together into a final result. And, then you get to see how people interact with it.
Next, you ask how you can continue to improve the product and make it better so that more people are empowered to use it. It is rewarding to see your work being used by biologists to do cutting-edge science.”
On this note, Emilie highlights the different layers involved:
“Maybe what makes it so exciting is not just that we have developed a software platform, but that this software interacts with robots and also gets the biology working at the same time. What I think is very special about Synthace is its multidisciplinary team that enables the hardware, software, and biology to all work together.”
Liquid handling robots are becoming more accessible
Liquid handling robots have been described as the physical connections that link different analytical and product-producing steps in a workflow. Emilie highlights the importance of flexibility for scientists working in R&D:
“Our customers want to be able to easily test new conditions or repeat experiments using different samples, which currently remains difficult when using the software that comes with most liquid handlers. This is where Antha comes into play: by using elements that represent a set of instructions, the users can easily modify parameters without having to re-script the whole workflow.”
Emilie recalls how Synthace recently helped a client to optimise their construct assembly process that had initially been done manually. By supplying Antha, Synthace delivered a usable system that was not previously available for the particular robot that the customer wanted:
“They were very happy with it, which was particularly rewarding to our entire team who dedicated their time and effort to this project. There was me on the customer success side, and we also had our lab and engineering teams involved. Delivering Antha to the customer and seeing how it facilitates their work and how they could use it without prior programming skills was definitely an amazing feeling.”
Keltoum, who is also one of Synthace’s customers, is in agreement:
“By using Antha, our scientists were not required to have any programming experience to be able to program a robot. With its visualisation tools and the high level of abstraction, Antha was a great means of introducing the scientists to the automation world.”
A reliable, user-friendly graphical interface is essential
Biologists adopting computer-aided approaches are likely to find themselves face-to-face with a brand new graphical interface. Keltoum shares her vision of an ideal graphical interface:
“An ideal graphical interface for me should offer great freedom in terms of control of the robots, be user-friendly and overall reliable. We all know that one software that crashes for no reason! It should be as close as possible to what the reality is (colours, shapes, to scale, etc.) but in a nicer way. An ideal graphical interface should be great at avoiding confusion.”
As part of Michelle’s overall mission of writing software to help biologists run better experiments, she has been focusing on improving user experience. This involves understanding how scientists interact with the user interface to simulate their experiments. Coming from a software background, Michelle is intrigued so see how she can create better workflows for biologists:
“I communicate with the scientists and say: ‘Hey, I want to see what you guys are doing. How can we close that loop?’”
In addition to engineering and customer success teams that Michelle and Emilie are a part of, Synthace also has a lab team who constantly tests Antha on real-life biological experiments and with various liquid handling robots. The team works in the laboratory that is a part of Synthace’s London office in White City and feeds back to the software engineers with any suggestions on how Antha’s user interface could be improved, making automation even more accessible to biologists.
Automation to revolutionise biological R&D
The recent advances in biological automation, enabled by computer-aided biology, are paving the way to more efficient R&D, allowing the scientists to perform experiments with higher throughput and in less time. This enables them to dedicate more time to data analysis, exploring new research topics, and brainstorming new ways to dissect biology. Therefore, automation will not replace human scientists but will empower them to do more cutting-edge research by eliminating most of the manual labour that is currently a limiting step.
Synthace is proud to have built the software platform that makes lab automation more accessible and flexible for users. Antha does not require any programming skills; it is user-friendly and constantly being developed by a multidisciplinary team of lab scientists and software engineers to improve its user interface. This would not be possible without the team of amazing women, both at Synthace and its client companies, who are an invaluable part of the scientific community working towards revolutionising biology. Emilie, Michelle, and Keltoum are examples of the many extremely competent, dedicated, and experienced women in science who are delivering solutions for biotechnology in the 21st century.
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