A robot that can complete the equivalent of a year's drug-screening in a day, could lead to safer and more effective treatments for children with cancer.
The new machine is being used by researchers with the Children's Cancer Institute Australia (CCIA) for Medical Research at the University of New South Wales's Lowy Cancer Research Centre.
Associate Professor Richard Lock is leading the first drug-screening research project to use the robotic tool and says it will quickly increase the repertoire of drugs available for treating children's cancer.
"If we can do in a day what it would normally take two researchers to do in a year ... we're going to increase the rate at which we can discover new drugs very quickly," says Lock.
He says with more drug treatments to choose from, it may be easier to find those that don't damage healthy cells, which is a big problem for children with cancer.
The machine comprises a series of plastic trays in which cancerous cells are placed in close to 400 tiny wells on each tray. The robotic arms then place a tiny quantity of a different molecular compound in each well.
After an incubation period, any compounds that are found to work against the cancerous cells can be identified and further work can be done to develop potential drug therapies.
Lock and his colleagues are initially doing what he says is a "fairly small" screening of about 20,000 compounds against acute lymphoblastic leukaemia - a relatively rare genetic variation of leukaemia that has been highly resistant to conventional treatments.
"We're not going in with any biases or looking for any one kind of molecule. We think that if you go in with an open mind, you might come up with some surprises," he says.
Conventional cancer treatments are designed to target rapidly dividing cells. But children have many healthy cells that are designed to divide rapidly and these are damaged by such treatments, leading to serious side effects such as infertility, bone problems and learning difficulties.
Because of this, compounds identified to be active against cancerous cells by the robotic screening will later be tested against normal healthy cells to ensure they are not going to inadvertently lead to such side-effects.
"What we're trying to do is develop drugs that more specifically target leukaemias so that we don't see some of these long-term side effects," says Lock.
"Cure is not enough, even though the majority of children are now cured, we need to come up with better drugs that will effect those cures, but don't have all the toxic side-effects."
Although it still takes a lot of work to progress from a promising compound to a drug that can be used on patients, Lock says with the new technology, there is likely to be a rush of new cancer treatments available for children within as little as a handful of years.
"Another aim of our program is to use molecular biology techniques to predict which patients might respond to any given new drug," he says.
"Hopefully the logical progression is to take that information to the doctors who are treating the children and say 'the molecular profile of this child suggests to us that the child will respond to this new drug but probably won't respond to this other one'."