TAP's robotics technology empowers Amgen's small molecule sample bank to advance drug discovery

Thousand Oaks 21 March 2001The Automation Partnership (TAP) of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and Amgen, a California-based biotechnology company are collaborating to integrate advances in biotechnology with the acceleration of technology in information storage technology and robotics. TAP is helping Amgen design and build an automated small molecule sample storage, retrieval, and preparation system for potential human therapeutic drug candidates.


Amgen has inaugurated the $8 million system, that is comprised of trays with thousands of frozen samples, robots, laser scanners, and "smart" conveyor belts which archive, retrieve, and ultimately prepare and deliver customised formulations of samples for what someday may yield conventional oral drugs. The company discovers, develops, manufactures, and markets cost-effective human therapeutics based on advances in cellular and molecular biology. Amgen's three current products are all injected protein formulations.

The core of the sample bank is an automated storage and retrieval system known as Haystack. The Haystack system was designed and built in collaboration with the Automation Partnership. Amgen will utilise the automated Haystack technology to archive, manage, and retrieve its rapidly expanding library of proprietary small molecule compounds used by its research and pre-clinical groups. The database and control software enables Haystack to continuously track every movement of every sample, thus potentially reducing cycle times substantially, and minimising the likelihood of human error, such as misplacement of compounds by several orders of magnitude.

Two main features set Amgen's Haystack system apart from those installed by large pharmaceutical companies. Amgen's system stores samples at -20 Degrees C, increasing the stability and storage life of samples substantially. Current Haystack systems store samples at 4 Degrees C. Lowering the storage temperature to -20 Degrees C presented a number of engineering challenges, including preventing lubricants from freezing, maintaining the flexibility of seals and gaskets, and avoiding the formation of ice at points of entry into the bank.

In addition, Amgen and The Automation Partnership were the first to apply a two-dimensional (2D) dot code system used to read and track the contents of every sample microtube. The identification system contains many times the amount of identification data as traditional bar code systems do. As such, the Haystack system is capable of preparing hundreds of thousands of samples per day, thereby increasing screening capacity at least five-fold. Haystack sample requests are initiated via a suite of internal Amgen Web applications.

Amgen's Haystack system can store more than 1 million samples and rapidly deliver them to the company's scientists. The samples can be stored dry in bottles, in microtiter plates, and in microtubes as solutions. "What we are doing is harnessing robotics technology to improve the efficiency of drug discovery", commented Roger Perlmutter, M.D., Ph.D., Executive Vice President, Research and Development. "The external acquisition and improvements in synthetic chemistry are producing thousands of novel compounds. The Haystack automated system will make Amgen Research more productive by helping our scientists efficiently manage these crucial starting materials", Dr. Perlmutter added.

"Our robotic high throughput screening systems already accelerated the speed with which we screen candidates. The automated sample bank should accelerate our drug discovery and development timelines. We are confident that our bank will help Amgen speed important new drugs to the patients and health care providers who need them", explained Peter Grandsard, Associate Director, Research Information and Automation Technologies, who oversaw the automation of Amgen's sample bank.

Leslie Versweyveld

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