For an organisation with the slightly dreary words ‘laboratory automation’ in its title, it is striking how much the impact and reach of SLAS (The Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening) has grown over the years. Its annual conference is now of great interest to anyone working in targeted medicine which, in my view, is one of the most important new frontiers of science for the 21st century.
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This year’s conference was of particular significance to us here at Cambridge Consultants as, for the past five years or so, we have invested heavily in ways of working with cells and cell data. We have dramatically expanded both our synthetic biology capability and our capacity to handle large amounts of information gathered from cells.
This move may have seemed something of a gamble back when we first took this decision in the mid-2010s. But it is now paying dividends as we are able to manipulate biology on a cell-by-cell basis. And we have the computational capacity to handle the huge amounts of data that such in-depth cellular research produces. As I see it, the drive right now in our industry is to combine both the depth and breadth of the current research to predict patient futures and produce highly personalised and targeted medicines.
Sitting on my virtual aeroplane travelling back from SLAS2021, I am reflecting on an unusual but very interesting conference, held entirely online. Yes, I missed the energy of sharing a room with other attendees and the shared excitement as innovative and unexpected talks unfold in real time. But reassuringly, the quality of the talks this year was as high as ever.
Right on target
SLAS2021 definitely signposted the potential routes towards better targeted medicine with their choice of the two keynote speakers. First up was synthetic biology expert Professor James Collins of MIT, who spoke inspiringly on the possibilities of controlling and developing the very, very, small contents of cells.
James did a fantastic job of explaining the rich possibilities open to us if we use the fundamental building blocks of biology as engineering tools. He compared biological processes with electronic components on a circuit board. This powerful analogy allowed the audience to follow him through his complex description of how to create a biological switch. And once you have created a switch, he explained, you can then go on to form more complex systems. Going back to the electronics analogy, a computer is at its heart a collection of millions of tiny electrical switches. Computers started life as a simple series of on/off valves. Now look what computing can achieve.
I’m firmly of the belief that synthetic biology will be an area of science that sees dramatic progress in the years ahead. One day we may be able to switch off, say, Parkinson’s, cancer or a host of crop diseases. At Cambridge Consultants, we firmly believe that the field of bioinnovation is critical to progress in healthcare, agriculture and climate change.
Another true inspiration at SLAS2021 was Silicon Valley biotech entrepreneur Dr Atul Butte of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at the University of California. His keynote speech was about big – very big – data. Atul explored what can be done with the mass of data extracted from cells in vast quantities. Mining this data is a process that has made him a billionaire and – despite his huge fortune – he seemed as energised as ever to do even more in this crucial field.
Atul’s talk was a powerful reminder that having access to data is only the start. Yes, data is a prerequisite, but the key is to gain insight. His background as a practising paediatrician and obvious enthusiasm for exploring large genetic data sets was evident as he demonstrated how he achieves useful and functional clinical insights. Just recently, he has been working on COVID-19 but he has a distinguished track record in meta-analysis of genetic data, coming up with smart new ways to combat diseases as varied as malaria and endometriosis.
This all struck a chord with me. Here, we certainly aim for both breadth and depth of expertise. Our commitment, a number of years ago, to system-wide thinking has allowed us to offer solutions for clients from start to finish in a project. We can take care of everything from the very first data gathering through the whole engineering process and then offer the powerful computing needed to interpret complex results. We’re able to bring together molecular biology, assay development, physics, electronics and AI to solve problems for our clients in a practical and economic fashion. As PG Wodehouse would say, we do the whole thing, from the soup to the nuts.
Cost and convenience
Such an approach can pay dividends in terms of cost as well as convenience. To take the analogy of a car factory’s assembly line, if you are told to build a vehicle using parts that you haven’t designed yourself, it can be hard to achieve efficiencies. Those over-large wheels you were told you had to use could cost you in terms of fuel consumption and speed further down the production line. That’s why, when Henry Ford famously found that his over-engineered fuel pump was outlasting the car itself, he told his engineers to ‘make the pump cheaper’.
In the same way, we recently achieved significant savings for one client by looking again at their optical measurements of glucose in blood and making the redundant parts of that process less expensive. To do this, we refined the assays to match the optics, focussing on the areas of highest information density within machine learning algorithms. The end result was just as effective but the whole process had been made far more cost-efficient.
As my virtual plane prepares for landing, my attendance at SLAS2021 has confirmed to me that we need cutting-edge, top-quality systems to make targeted medicine a reality. This will require breadth and depth of skills and experience but will deliver great results for the future. Here at Cambridge Consultants, we look forward to being at the heart of the progress to come.