Automation has unlocked efficiencies and expanded scale across multiple industries, such as car manufacturing and food service. And thanks to high throughput screening (HTS), drug discovery is no different.
What Is High Throughput Screening?
HTS is an assay process that can quickly run hundreds — even thousands — of drug screens at a given time. It relies on robotics, artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies to test targets against a vast library of compounds.
It's kind of like throwing a wide net of treatment possibilities against thousands of samples of the same disease and letting the machine hit on the most promising candidates. Human researchers can then continue the investigation with the lead compounds, analyzing the specific properties that make frontrunners particularly and effectively responsive.
But HTS has applications well beyond disease targeting. For example, it can aid cancer research and antibiotic development. Other researchers have engaged molecular and cellular assays for genomics, epigenetics, immunochemistry, and other fields.
High Throughput Screening Facilities
Given the staggering tech requirements, it used to be that only large labs of industry giants and contract research organizations could be outfitted with HTS capabilities. This is perhaps still true of completely autonomous facilities. But as the focus of HTS has shifted, at least in part, from the quantity of assays to the quality of screens, smaller labs can now bite at the apple without the need for a large library of compounds or million-dollar equipment.
Depending on their specific needs, however, most HTS facilities have a moderately sized repository of several thousand compounds, many of which come from major libraries such as ChemBridge, ChemDiv, and the National Cancer Institute.
Instrumentation can also vary depending on facility size and scope, but equipment usually includes a large screening system, pipettors, centrifuges, incubators, image capturing and plate readers, liquid handlers, dispensers, and plate washers. And, of course, every HTS facility needs permeable support HTS systems and plates — such as Transwell® High Throughput Screening Systems and accessories — for an automation-friendly suite of supplies.
The Evolution of High Throughput Screening
HTS has evolved dramatically. For one, disruptive innovations in algorithmic learning have carried automation to new heights thanks to predictive patterning. As a result, machine learning is to thank for recent discoveries for Ebola and tuberculosis, to name a few.
Other evolutions of HTS derive from its changing purpose and ethos. As Technology Networks reports, about 10 years ago, the industry feared that HTS would hold drug discovery back by way of limiting creative approaches to science and new ideas. But HTS has evolved into a streamlined but strategic approach to drug development. High throughput automation has opened up new avenues for therapy discovery and could someday help lift the high rates of drug failure in medical research.
3D Applications of High Throughput Screening
Most cellular screens involve 2D cultures because of the physical challenges inherent in mass-testing 3D structures, such as spheroids and organoids, and the technology available to analyze them. But as a study published in Frontiers in Pharmacology notes, those 2D samples, while convenient, might not wholly represent the contexts of the microenvironments they set out to study.
As equipment, supplies, and HTS systems evolve, they enable more 3D applications of HTS aided by synthetic scaffolding and self-assembling hydrogels. Because of the high-volume capability of HTS systems, researchers can test manifold combinations at speed and scale. The sheer number of combinations means more failure, but more failure in this stage means less failure in clinical trials, when real patients are involved. It means that researchers can arrive at effective combinations sooner — and get more effective drugs to market faster.
It's likely that these innovations will continue to take shape in the near future, given the pace at which HTS technologies emerge and the scientific advantages of 3D cell culturing. And with the HTS industry expected to surge until at least 2027, there will most certainly be myriad business opportunities, too.