Sustainability goals in science must include one untilrecently overlooked issue: lab space and the lack of it. Without increased automation and the use of emerging technology, says Doug Rich, futureproofing the expansion of UK life sciences could prove much harder.
Life sciences organisations have ambitious goals of doubling or even tripling output with a growing workforce – in novel areas from genomics to synthetic biology. The UK Government has also set out a 10-year vision to make the UK a world leader in life sciences. However, there’s a major challenge that could be hindering its success – there isn’t enough space available for fast scaling organisations to expand operations.
Recent data by property consultancy firm Bidwells found that availability for labs in the Oxford-Cambridge arc was close to zero in June, while the demand for space surged by a quarter in the first half of 2022. This means that the thriving life sciences sector is at risk of experiencing a slowdown simply because there is no space to do the work. As a result, investors could be turning their heads to other cities such as Boston in the US that are rich in life sciences institutions and have millions of square feet in lab space immediately available.
While Oxford and Cambridge have historically been seen as the most significant life sciences hubs in the UK, there has been investment elsewhere in the country.
Stevenage was recently announced as the home to a new £900 million life sciences hub, positioning the town as one of the leading life sciences clusters.
How can the Oxford-Cambridge arc, and the UK as a whole, create new lab capacity to keep up with the demand in the sector? Achieving this might sound like magic. Particularly as the available physical space is limited. But with the right approach and technology, it can be a reality. There needs to be a mindset change in the industry, one where leaders of scientific organisations stop thinking about expanding in a linear fashion but focus on doing more with the same. And automation has a huge role to play in helping them achieve this.
The role of automation
In the past, lab automation solutions were so bulky, complex and expensive that only the largest labs could access them. Furthermore, in order to improve throughput in labs, the immediate solution was to hire more scientists and technicians. However, in the context of saving valuable space, adding more laboratory workers simply isn’t viable.
To maximise the footprint of a lab and establish an efficient workspace, the answer lies in an interoperable and modular model Laboratory automation tools today are far more accessible and can be designed to meet the needs of labs in any size and at any stage of their automation journey. Innovative solutions such as modular automation stations and automated lab benches make it possible to maximise existing space, increase levels of activity, and free up scientists to work on more innovative research. For startups in particular, making better use of small lab spaces in this way will be critical to scale.
By taking a modular approach, labs can flex the technology as the needs of a lab change. For example, a single automated tool can perform multiple processes – from liquid handling to thermocycling – whilst keeping labs running efficiently.
With an automated testing line set up, it would be possible to carry out up to 100,000 cancer screenings per day
These solutions can be easily taken apart and put back together, or easily altered. Modular automation solutions not only empower labs to save space, but also to challenge the norm and discover new ways of working.
If the same piece of kit can be optimised to carry out new tasks when needed, labs can continue to meet the rising demand for new drugs and medicines, keep up with product life cycles as they become shorter, and ensure the UK is at the forefront of life sciences for years to come. All operating within the same space they’ve been in without needing to physically expand. And since automation can improve throughput and scale, labs can be flexible and change and adapt what they’re being used for.
How to use spaces more flexibly, and how automation facilitates this
The Covid-19 pandemic saw the emergence of labs in office blocks, mobile labs and even open-source diagnostic labs inside shipping containers. Both facilities and automation had to be used in more innovative ways because of the speed the disease was spreading. But with demand for testing slowing down, many of these labs are now unused. How can these spaces be transformed?
Here’s how the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust (UHS) leveraged automation to speed-up Covid-19 screening and its plans to leverage the technology and space in the future. The UHS was looking to quickly turn an office block into an end-to-end production line for processing saliva testing at pace. Leveraging Automata’s modular approach meant the UHS could be flexible and fit the technology into the space it had. Automation has also helped to increase traceability by having all the results collected digitally, so data gathering was streamlined, and samples were processed in a timely manner.
The UHS is now exploring how the automated technology they adopted for Covid-19 can be repurposed into a urine testing lab, to offer mass screenings for prostate cancer, cervical cancer and ovarian cancer. With an automated testing line set up, it would be possible to carry out up to 100,000 cancer screenings per day.
There’s world-class science happening across the UK. And we want that to continue. While having lab space is essential to bringing to market the innovations of tomorrow at pace – from cell-cultured meat and crops, to life-saving drugs and vaccines – with the right technology, scientists can do more with what they already have. Automated solutions allow scientists to be more flexible in their approach as their needs shift – allowing them to scale and compete with life sciences organisations globally, without needing the additional lab space.
Doug Rich is Head of Revenue at Automata