AstraZeneca shares world-leading world’s most advanced drug discovery robot through Open Innovation

NiCoLA-B, the world’s most advanced drug discovery robot, is teaming up with scientists from Cancer Research UK (CRUK) and the Medical Research Council (MRC), through AstraZeneca’s Open Innovation research collaboration programme. The new robot, which can test up to 300,000 compounds a day, is designed to make drug discovery smarter, faster and cheaper. It can work three times more quickly than previous drug discovery robots and can sense and adapt to the presence of its human workmates. This means it can share their workspace without protective guarding.

"It will have a really positive impact on our work. Something which would previously have taken a year to do will take a few months," explains Fabrice Turlais, Drug Discovery Scientist at Cancer Research UK.

AstraZeneca drew on decades of experience with first-generation robots to draw up the blueprint for NiCoLA-B.

“We used to have to adjust our experiments to the way the robots worked, but NiCoLA-B has been designed to adapt to our way of working and collaborate with us. At any time, we can quickly inspect, interact and easily reconfigure it to our changing needs, so we’re in charge now!” explains Paul Harper, Associate Principal Scientist, Screening Sciences, at AstraZeneca’s Innovative Medicines and Early Development (IMED) Biotech Unit.

Through a mobile app, researchers can ‘talk’ to NiCoLA-B and guide its decision-making – at any time and from anywhere in the world.

Open Innovation – the ‘new normal’ for drug discovery?

Open Innovation collaborations, such as those involving NiCoLA-B, are becoming increasingly common in medicines research.

AstraZeneca launched its Open Innovation initiative for sharing compounds, technology and expertise with academic and industry partners in 2014 ( Since then, it has received over 400 proposals from researchers in 28 countries, leading to 150 collaborations. Potential partners can access over 250,000 compounds – both ‘live’ and discontinued - for screening, and over 100 pre-clinical and 22 clinical Open Innovation studies are ongoing or planned.

“I hope that our pioneering approach to Open Innovation will spread across the industry and academia and become the new normal,” says Craig Wegner, Executive Director, Emerging Innovations, Scientific Partnering & Alliances, IMED Biotech Unit. “It is enabling us to advance projects that neither we nor our partners would be able to do alone and create new therapies for patients.”

AstraZeneca collaborations include institutional partners, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Center for Advancing Translational Research (NIH-NCATS) in the US, CRCUK and the MRC in the UK and the National Research Program for Biopharmaceuticals (NRPB) in Taiwan.

"It's really exciting that AstraZeneca are opening their doors and allowing academic scientists into their labs," says MRC supported scientist, Georgia Cerillo.

The Open Innovative programme offers potential partners:

-          A Clinical Compound Bank of patient-ready compounds

-          A Preclinical Toolbox of compounds ready for preclinical studies

-          Possibilities for Target Innovation (identifying chemical leads to novel drug targets), New Molecule Profiling (determining drug-like properties for novel compounds) and a variety of R&D Challenges. Collaborating against chronic cought

       At Manchester University, Professor Jacky Smith is testing a compound, called AZD3355, through an Open Innovation collaboration with the MRC. Discontinued as a possible treatment for heartburn, AZD3355 is now being tested as a possible treatment for chronic cough – a debilitating problem for which there have been no new medicines for over 50 years. 

       “These sorts of cross-institutional collaborations are one of the best ways to really drive our knowledge forward in the field, and find new medicines,” says Professor Smith. 





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