A Good Day at Work: Meeting the Robots

By Aaron Ferster

Tox21 robot at work.

Tox21 robot moves a test plate into place.

Any science writer would agree that the best days in the office are actually those that are spent outside the office. We all get into this business in no small part for the fleeting opportunities that arise when we can tag along to see some innovative new technology in action. A couple of weeks ago I had just that kind of opportunity.

With a colleague about to go on maternity leave and unable to travel (congratulations, Monica!), I volunteered to help out with logistics at a partner meeting of Tox21, a collaborative, high-tech toxicology research effort using robotic technology and automated, computer-aided “high throughput screening” techniques to explore thousands of chemicals for properties that might make them potentially harmful to human health and the environment. The program, a cooperative effort uniting EPA, the National Institutes of Health, and the Food and Drug Administration, is ushering in a faster, far less expensive generation of toxicology testing that promises to significantly reduce the use of laboratory animals.

The partners highlighted some of Tox21’s impressive accomplishments so far, illustrating how EPA researchers and their colleagues from the other agencies are harnessing advances in exposure science, molecular and systems biology, chemistry, toxicology, mathematics, and computer technology.

EPA researchers alone have used the new techniques to model 30 years and $2 billion worth of traditional, animal-based labs tests, and have evaluated more than 2,000 chemicals from a broad range of sources, including industrial and consumer products, food additives, and those proposed as safer, more benign substances than some currently in use. Dozens of papers in scientific journals have been published using ToxCast data.

Cation sign in lab.

Robot at work.

This was some high-tech show and tell, but the best part of the trip was visiting the lab where robotic arms move small rectangular plates around a series of carefully choreographed steps from exposure to analysis. Each plate contains a series of tiny wells (at times as many as 1536), each containing living cells that are exposed to a chemical being tested. Computers then scan the cells and those that signal certain types of changes are flagged so researchers can investigate the chemical it was exposed to more thoroughly.

After all the talk about high-throughput screening and computational toxicology, I found myself somewhat mesmerized watching the robots moving the plates precisely from one spot to the next. Their gentle, periodic whirr was broken momentarily as my colleague Tina Bahadori, Sc.D.—the National Program Director for EPA’s Chemical Safety for Sustainability Research Program—leaned over to quietly point out that every time the big yellow robot arm put a new plate into production, it represented nearly a 1000 new experiments underway, preventing the use of that many laboratory animals, and saving perhaps as much as a million dollars’ worth of testing costs.

Not only are programs such as ToxCast significantly reducing the time it takes to test chemicals for potential trouble, but they are doing so in ways that also reduce the use of laboratory animals and save money. Tina smiled as I pondered that for a moment. Then we both looked around the room to watch the rest of the research partners and guests pointing and smiling as the robot did its thing. Clearly, I was not the only one having a good day at work.

About the Author: Aaron Ferster is the editor of EPA’s It All Starts with Science.

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