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Innovations in Lab Automation: The Lilly L2S2

Remote-controlled lab part of an exciting emerging trend in the life sciences

Rachel Muenz

Automation has been a key part of improving the drug discovery process for quite some time, but a lab in San Diego, California is taking innovation in automation to a whole new level. The 11,500-square-foot Lilly Life Sciences Studio (L2S2), located within the Lilly Biotechnology Center, can be remote-controlled by researchers from anywhere in the world through the Strateos robotic cloud platform. Officially launched in January 2020, the lab brings several parts of the drug discovery process together onto one automated platform.

While Lab Manager was unable to coordinate a more recent chat with Lilly representatives due to scheduling conflicts at press time, a video released shortly after the lab was launched features interviews with several members of the L2S2 team, detailing the advances in automation that the lab features and the main benefits, as well as the key goals of the lab. The Lilly team took the time to review this material before publishing.

“The Lilly Life Sciences Studio literally reinvents the paradigm of drug discovery,” says James P. Beck, senior director of discovery chemistry at Lilly. “It’s a first-of-its-kind research ecosystem; it’s a resource available to scientists to empower hypotheses in a way that’s never been delivered before.”

“What would have taken a few weeks to a month to go through that full design cycle is now down to days to hours at a time.”

Beck adds that the L2S2 seamlessly brings together steps that have traditionally been done separately in the drug discovery process, making it far more efficient.

“It’s just really exciting because nothing like this has ever happened before,” says Devon Thompson, senior director of protein sciences at Lilly. “A scientist can design compounds and have them synthesized and then test them in biological assays, all in an integrated fashion.”

Todd DeCollo, research and lead automation scientist at the L2S2, says this integration makes the drug design process much faster. “Unlike previous platforms where we had to do each step discreetly and independently, now with this technology and the way we've designed this platform, multi-step chemistry in a single vial is a reality,” he says. “This de-siloing of different scientific functions now allows a compound designer such as myself to be able to design a molecule and then that biological data is captured all on one platform without me having to make multiple requests. What would have taken a few weeks to a month to go through that full design cycle is now down to days to hours at a time.”

Technology 

One of the unique features of the L2S2 is a custom MagneMotion track that brings samples to various automation modules for processing or storage. The cloud platform, which controls everything in the lab, also captures all data generated by the lab’s instruments in a standardized format, allowing for better reproducibility and tracking of each step. Better sample storage and management is another benefit of the system, which features five automation modules for sample storage and reformatting that include two automated stores and input/output, weighing, and reformatting modules, says Rick Robbins, advisor, quality control laboratories, automation and integration at Lilly. 

The automated stores can accommodate a variety of different container types and users can pick and choose from millions of samples, while the input/output module is the only point in the system where human contact is involved—the technician loads samples into the system here and retrieves them once the experiment is complete. Fewer touchpoints mean fewer chances of introducing errors. The lab’s high-volume reformatting module allows the team to move samples from one container type to another for various assays requiring those container types, while the low-volume reformatting module allows them to “build assay-ready plates to be used in our biological testing assays,” Robbins says.

Lab users don’t need to be experts in chemistry as the system will make recommendations for their experiments based on the data it has collected, and the lab won’t go out of date any time soon as it’s been built to easily accommodate new technologies and advances as they become available.

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“Science is always evolving and advancing and one of the great things about the Lilly Life Sciences Studio is that it's designed to expand and evolve with it, so as new scientific technologies are being discovered and developed, the Lilly Life Sciences Studio is always relevant and current,” says Anju Lewis, consultant, L2S2 Biology.

To use the lab, scientists put in a request for their project. Once approved and the order is placed, a lab technician at the L2S2 places the compounds in the input/output module and the scheduling software requests the samples be moved to another module to be processed. A camera system allows the remote scientist to track their samples as they move through the system and the scientist can then retrieve all associated data through a web portal.

Users can also ask the system what compounds could be made and it will tell them what’s in stock, what needs to be purchased, the cost of those compounds, and how long it will take to get them. Ultimately, the lab allows scientists to produce better, more reproducible data that allows them to make better decisions on which drug candidates are worth pursuing further in the drug discovery and development process.

“The most exciting thing about the Lilly Life Science Studio is that it's going to be addressing some of our needs to reduce cycle times and go faster on projects to make go/no-go decisions and, ultimately, it's that innovation that's going to be able to bring the right drug to the right patient in a timely fashion,” Thompson explains.

Building the lab

First conceptualized in 2015 as a way to automate the whole drug discovery process, the Lilly team and their partners began construction on the lab and automated system in 2017, taking three years to complete the project. Various parts of the automated system were built at different locations in the US and Europe, and then shipped to San Diego to be assembled in the lab. Numerous instrument vendors were involved in setting up the space which, at the time the lab launched, included more than 100 instruments and storage for more than 5 million compounds.

“We built Lilly Life Sciences Studio for the next generation of researchers out there who want to make a difference in the world.”

Communication and collaboration

In addition to sporting state-of-the-art technology, when conceiving the lab, the Lilly team had four main goals, what they called the four Rs, according to Ryan Bernhardt, senior research scientist and L2S2 architect at the time of the project. He shares in the video that the team wants the science done at the L2S2 to be: 

  • Reproducible, which is best achieved through automation 
  • Responsible, by reducing how much materials and reagents they’re using 
  • Relationship-building, by being a “collaboration-hub,” not just for Lilly scientists but for those in academia and organizations outside the company
  • Rewarding, by allowing those scientists to make a real-world impact

“We built Lilly Life Sciences Studio for the next generation of researchers out there who want to make a difference in the world; a system that can continue to evolve as technology evolves and as research evolves so that we can ultimately make life-saving and life-changing medicines for patients around the world,” says Bernhardt, who is now the chief commercial officer at Biosero.

Other remote-controlled labs

While the L2S2 lab is unique, it’s not the only remote-controlled lab. These types of labs are becoming part of a larger trend in the life sciences where drug discovery researchers may have limited lab capacity, or not have access to a physical lab space at all, choosing instead to outsource their lab work. While that work is normally outsourced to traditional labs with a mix of human staff and automation, large remote-controlled labs such as the L2S2 could provide an alternative. 

In addition to the L2S2 lab that Strateos and Lilly are partners on, Strateos also has its own life sciences lab, located in Menlo Park, California, that researchers can control from anywhere, though it’s much smaller than the L2S2 at around 2,500 square feet. The Emerald Cloud Lab is another remotely-operated life science lab in San Francisco, California that automates all the “grunt work” of daily lab processes without the user needing to set foot in the lab’s physical location, though they are still in the process of scaling up the lab to a larger space. Culture Biosciences’ Cloud Lab similarly lets users control its bioreactor lab remotely to create and run high-throughput experiments.

Smaller remote-controlled labs have also started to emerge as an education and training tool for STEM students, gaining more popularity as in-person learning shut down across the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More cloud platforms that, like Strateos’ software, allow for remote control and automation of such labs are coming onto the market, along with artificial intelligence platforms that can automate the research and development and discovery processes. 

Though these technologies and large remote-controlled labs are not yet widespread, the work done so far suggests they could revolutionize the drug discovery space and have the potential to do the same in other areas of science.