[ASC-media] Embargo 1 pm today - robot hunts for new drugs - 30,000 times a day

Niall Byrne niall at scienceinpublic.com
Mon Nov 17 10:47:28 EST 2003

Robot hunts for new drugs - 30,000 times a day

as Australian medical researchers take a bold commercial leap into drug

Embargo 1 pm Monday 17 November 2003

The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) today unveiled a million dollar
drug discovery system at the opening of their new Biotechnology Centre in
Bundoora today.

"We believe this is the most sophisticated and flexible drug screening
system in the world," says Peter Robert, Director of Melbourne biotech
company Advanced Labs. "We developed the system to suit The Walter and Eliza
Hall Institute's exact specifications, in collaboration with the leader of
the drug screening team, Dr Ian Street.

"I'm impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit shown by The Walter and Eliza
Hall Institute medical researchers," says Peter Robert, "Other academic
institutions should take note."

"The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute is prepared to take a gamble on diving
into the difficult waters of drug discovery. This is a venture most other
institutions steer clear of -but it's the game you've got to be in if you
want to add real value to Australian intellectual property.

"The new screening service will dramatically improve the chances of turning
targets into treatments. The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute researchers
have an exceptional track record in discovering targets - such as compounds
in the body that control cell growth and cell death. Recently they
discovered a new class of proteins that regulate disease fighting white
blood cells. These SOCS proteins hold great potential for disease treatment
if drugs can be developed to turn them on and off. In the past the Institute
would have to persuade a pharmaceutical company to screen potential drugs
against the target. Now the process can start in-house," says Peter Robert.

"The new system will:

* Increase the chances of identifying potential drugs
* Add value to discoveries
* Aid the search for drugs for Third World diseases such as malaria and
leishmaniasis, for which there is a desperate need, but little commercial
"A second application is a protein called BCL2," says Peter Robert. "The
researchers have shown it's a critical regulator of cell death. If they can
find a chemical that will turn it on or off then they've got a potential to
develop a new cancer drug.

"Often sophisticated scientific equipment arrives from overseas in crates
and local scientists struggle to set it up," says Rick Holder, Director of
Engineering at Advanced Labs. "We've worked to provide a better solution,
bringing half a million dollars of equipment from US manufacturer Zymark to
Melbourne and adjusting it to the clients needs. The system is not the
fastest in the world but it has the flexibility and capacity to grow to meet
the demands of as-yet uninvented assays." The Advanced Labs/Zymark system is
complemented by a second unit from Perkin Elmer.

Background information: Advanced Labs, WEHI and Zymark

17 November 2003

The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) Biotechnology Centre

The new Walter and Eliza Hall Institute Biotechnology Centre greatly
enhances Victoria's capacity to turn basic medical research discoveries into
useful therapeutic drugs and treatments. Without this centre researchers are
dependent on big pharmaceutical companies to undertake drug development
work. The new centre allows researchers to add value to their discoveries
and increase the chances of successful commercialisation.

* The centre is worth over $27 Million. It houses laboratories for the
commercial incubation of WEHI's discoveries and provides space for the
establishment of start-up biotechnology companies.
* Two of the key facilities at the new Centre are
* The High Throughput Chemical Screening (HTCS) Facility - funded jointly by
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and the Victorian Government, through Bi021,
which provided $2.06 million (50%) towards the automated equipment. Other
funding sources included philanthropic trusts.
* The Medicinal Chemistry Laboratories
* Melbourne biotechnology company Advanced Labs developed, supplied, and
installed a customised million dollar robotic drug screening system that's
at the heart of the new screening facility.
What does the High Throughput Chemical Screening Facility do?

The High Throughput Chemical Screening Facility bridges the gap between
basic research knowledge and drug development.

When Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and Bi021 scientists discover a new
protein that, for example, controls the growth of cancer cells, they will be
able to use the new facility to quickly search for chemicals that stop the
protein doing its job.

The new facility has a "Lead Discovery Library" - a collection of
approximately 100,000 compounds purchased from commercial vendors and valued
at over $1 million (for just of one to two milligrams of each compound).

Sophisticated robots test each of the compounds to see if it will change the
behaviour of the protein. The robots can test over 30,000 compounds a day.

Any compounds that show potential can be passed to the Institute's Medicinal
Chemistry team. Their task is to enhance and fine tune the chosen compounds
to see which might make a suitable drug.

In the past, Victorian researchers have been largely reliant on big
pharmaceutical companies for these steps. If they weren't interested, then
the research often couldn't progress. If they were interested, then Victoria
would lose valuable intellectual property early in development.

The facility is unique to Australia and one of only a few operating in
publicly funded institutions world wide.

The Lead Discovery Library

The Lead Discovery Library contains over 100,000 compounds - each
representing a class or group of potential drugs. The compounds are used for
primary screening campaigns and initial follow up studies. Proteins and
other biological receptors found in research will be screened against the
suite of the chemical compounds in the library to see if they react.

The compounds in the library were selected to provide "lead-like" chemical
structures because these compounds have the physiochemical properties and
chemical tractability that is likely to make them suitable candidates for
lead optimization programs (drug development).

The Zymark Mini Staccato

* The Zymark Mini Staccato is the primary machine in the HTCS laboratory and
is a very sophisticated and flexible system. The system is able to carry out
simple and complex compound screens depending on the demands of the
individual project. It has a unique cherry picking capability allowing fully
automated access to individual compounds for confirmation tests and follow
up studies. This is made particularly easy by its direct access to ready
made mixtures from the Lead Discovery Library.
* The Zymark can screen against 30,000 compounds a day. This is compares to
the 100 compounds or so a week in the early 1990s!
* The Facility aims to conduct 10 screening campaigns a year, from WEHI and
research institutions.
* The sophistication of the system allows samples as small as 5uL. This will
reduce the consumption of precious and expensive compounds, therefore
reducing the overall cost of the screening campaign.
* WEHI's Zymark system was designed and installed by Melbourne based
biotechnology company Advanced Labs - based around a robot from US company
* This is the first of these sophisticated systems in Australia. Advanced
Labs not only delivered a working screening system, but also continues to
support the operation of the system. The success of the system proves
Advanced Labs are a real biotech partner - not just a box to bench




Media contact: Niall Byrne ph 0417 131 977	 
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