Trying to achieve more without increasing costs, sacrificing quality, or slowing down growth is a constant mission for any expanding business or industry – but it is particularly acute when it comes to drug discovery. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the pressing need to rapidly develop effective drugs and treatments, and the growing industry has made remarkable progress in recent years – with the government recently investing £227 million into the sector. Areas like precision medicine, novel vaccines, cell and gene therapies and synthetic biology are all driving healthcare forwards – but there are challenges for drug discovery companies to effectively scale and bring new cutting-edge products to market.
The three main challenges are the finite amount of lab space for expansion in the UK, manual processes impeding scaling and reproducibility, and scientists spending too much time on manual tasks rather than research and discovery.
Consultancy firm, Bidwells, recently found that the demand for lab space in Oxford and Cambridge is significantly surpassing what is available – with 10 thousand sq. ft available in Cambridge compared to two million sq. ft of demand. This means that drug discovery is at risk of facing a slowdown simply because there is not enough space to conduct cutting-edge research – and investors may turn their heads to other cities, such as Boston in the US, that have millions of square feet in lab space readily available. To meet this demand, there has even been a rise in the number of non-traditional spaces being converted into labs – such as refitting closed high-street shops.
The ability to scale throughput can also be difficult. As drug discovery labs seek to expand, manual processes struggle to keep pace and maintain accuracy. Being able to reproduce highly accurate results is vital when researching new drugs, as is the ability to test out as many leads as possible. With scientists carrying out many processes by hand, there is a limit to how fast it is possible to scale.
And finally, highly skilled and intelligent scientists in drug discovery aren’t fully utilising their expertise due to the need to perform routine tasks in the lab, rather than spending time designing new experiments.
However, there are ways to combat these challenges and drive drug discovery forwards. Automation is one tool that has been used in laboratories for several years and is continually evolving. Increasingly, labs are embracing automation to help scale, free up scientists’ time and work more efficiently.