The use of robotics and automation more generally is associated with increasing productivity and efficiency, often with the displacement of human labor with machine-based work. While productivity gains are a clear benefit of robotics, they can overshadow another equally or at times more important result – accuracy and repeatability. We are all familiar with the more general benefits of accuracy and repeatability in applications like high precision manufacturing. However, many of the current approaches to new patient therapies may be even more dependent on automation.
The term “personalized medicine” is frequently applied to a broad range of potential therapeutic practices ranging from improved matching of off the shelf drugs to your specific conditions/suitability all the way to the crafting of individualized treatments for a single person – true bespoke therapeutics. The former end of the personalized continuum primarily relies on improved diagnostics, data and screening, but truly bespoke medicine will be heavily dependent on robotics on automation to be successful, primarily because accuracy and repeatability in process will be critical for ensuring process dependability and patient safety.
Take cell therapy for example. In certain forms of immunotherapy, a patient’s cells are harvested from their body, “edited” through any number of gene transfer/editing protocols, and then reinjected into their bodies. The core concept here is that our bodies have amazing disease fighting powers, but some diseases (e.g. cancer) are simply not recognized, leaving the immune system ineffective. By genetically modifying a specific patient’s cells to recognize disease states and then reinjecting them into the patient, the battle against the disease can be fought by their own immune system!
Sound futuristic? In late August, the FDA took the landmark step of approving Kymriah, Novartis‘s CAR-T cell therapy for fighting refractory or relapsed B cell-precursor acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It’s a big deal, and the first of many such “personalized medicine” approaches. For example, companies like Juno Therapeutics, are also doing amazing research on similar treatment methods to fight cancer.
So what does any of the above have to do with robotics and automation? When our approach to treating patients involves the harvesting of personal material to later be reinjected, we are effectively making a new therapeutic entity for each person. As such, accuracy and reliabilty of the process itself become of paramount importance to ensure safety and control. We love scientists, but doubt we really want any individual with a test tube and a manual pipettor manipulating patient cells for later reinjection. To ensure sufficient levels of process repeatability, these tasks will depend on robotics and automation, which in many ways are underlying unseen drivers enabling these novel methods to be developed and deployed!