In a room on the second floor of the Sanofi-aventis research center in Oro Valley, a yellow industrial robotic arm sits at the center of a circle, surrounded by scientific instruments.
The HighRes Biosolutions robot conducts experiments more precisely and faster than scientists can. It produces "high throughput screening," allowing scientists to "speed up the process" of combining compounds and chemical assays while saving on expensive materials, according to Noelle Fukushima, a biologist with the company.
Fukushima holds a "microtiter" plate, about the size of a 4-by-6-inch photograph, its depth formed by 384 small "wells," vessels in which compounds and chemical and biological re-agents can be mixed.
There's an even finer microtiter plate, with 1,536 small wells. "It's like 1,536 test tubes, you can use all at once," Fukushima explained.
A combinatorial scientific experiment takes place in each well.
One of the devices docked around the robot's perimeter has "pins," upon which a "tiny, tiny amount of that precious compound" — whatever the scientists order — can be transferred from a source plate to the experimental well. At another station, a liquid handler deploys pipette tips to place precise volumes of a re-agent in each of the wells. Microtiter plates can then be placed in an incubator — where the environment can be adjusted however the scientist wants — for the chemical or biological reaction to take place.
Everything is bar-coded, and a computer tracks every experiment.
It's all done with the use of the robotic arm, which can combine biological and chemical components with "exquisite accuracy and precision," and do it quickly.
Imagine biologists pipetting materials into small wells, one by one. People are "bound to make a mistake" over the required weeks. The robot is "not going to make a mistake," and it completes the work in one-fifth of the time, Fukushima said.
"It saves us an immense amount of work," she said.
At a project's end, samples are placed in an "amazing" reader on the perimeter to analyze results. Scientists study the outcomes, and request further, more specific tests, all intended to generate leads toward the next pharmaceutical prospect.
Projects come from all over the Sanofi-aventis corporate system to Oro Valley for study.
"We are supporting the whole global company, and we have to be versatile and flexible," Fukushima said. "We are working with the full spectrum of diseases, and the full spectrum of read-outs."
She's been with the company for 3-1/2 years. "I fell into this company, and just love it," she said. "I couldn't have learned from better people."