New autonomous lab at University of Toronto to improve drug formulation

A new autonomous lab being built in the University of Toronto's Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy will help to design and optimize formulations that will improve bioavailability, stability and efficacy of a variety of drugs. 

Christine Allen, a professor in the faculty whose research focuses on drug development and disease diagnostics, is co-leading the lab with Frank Gu,  a professor in the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.

“I see huge potential for artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and automation in pharmaceutical sciences, for formulations and beyond,” says Allen, an expert in drug formulations.

“The world is finally understanding the impact of formulation technology and how powerful it is. Now we can marry that technology with AI and machine learning, so we’re kind of unstoppable.”

The new facility is known as a 'self-driving' lab because it uses AI, automation and advanced computing to test different combinations of materials and iteratively develop the best formulations. This approach will allow researchers to evaluate a much larger number of materials, significantly reducing both the cost and time required to identify a new drug formulation.

Allen explains that formulation scientists are often working under tight time constraints to get a product to market by deadline, and the final formulations are the best that can be done with the time available – but are not necessarily the best possible option.

“We’re providing a solution to that – accelerating development while looking for the best formulation,” says Allen, whose team worked in collaboration with Professor Alán Aspuru-Guzik’s research group to develop a prototype of the self-driving lab last year.

The self-driving lab at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy is one of six being built at U of T through a $200-million Canada First Research Excellence Fund grant to the Acceleration Consortium, a global network of government, industry and academic researchers accelerating the discovery of materials and molecules needed for a sustainable future.