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Robot Scientist Helps Design New Drugs

Robots are common in today’s world. They manufacture cars, work in space, explore oceans, clean up oil spills and investigate dangerous environments. And now, scientists at the University of Manchester are using a robot as a laboratory partner.

The researchers at the university created the robot in 2009 and named it Adam. Despite the name, Adam is not a humanoid robot. It is about the size of a car.

Adam was built to do science and make discoveries. Ross King is the leader of the University of Manchester research team. He says the robot made a discovery about yeast, a kind of fungus used in science as a model for human cells.

"Adam hypothesized certain functions of genes within yeast and experimentally tested these hypothesizes and confirmed them. So it both hypothesized and confirmed new scientific knowledge."

Adam's success as a scientist led to the creation of another robot scientist named Eve. Researchers developed Eve to design and test drugs for tropical and neglected diseases. These diseases kill and infect millions of people each year.

Drug development is slow and costly. Experts say it can take more than 10 years and about $1 billion to discover and develop new medicines. Drug manufacturers are unlikely to get their investment money back.

So the University of Manchester developed a low-cost test that shows whether or not a chemical is likely to be made into an effective medicine. Mr. King says that other drug testing methods were not very effective.

"How it works conventionally is you use robotics as well and you have a large collection of possible drugs. You test every single compound. And you start at the beginning of your library and continue until the end, and stop. So it's not a very intelligent process. The robotics doesn't learn anything as it goes along, even if it's tested a million compounds, it still doesn't have any expectation of what will happen next when it tests a new compound."

Mr. King says that Eve is different because the robot learns as it tests different compounds. He says the robot is designed to ignore compounds that it thinks unlikely to be good. It will only test the compounds which have a good chance of working.

Eve has discovered that a compound known to be effective against cancer might also be used to fight against malaria and other tropical diseases.

Mr. King says he hopes to completely automate the drug testing process with robots like Eve to create and test new chemicals. But he says humans remain in control of the manufacturing process.

I’m Jonathan Evans.

Rosanne Skirble reported this story from Washington. Jonathan Evans wrote it for Learning English. Caty Weaver edited it.


Words in This Story

automatev. to run or operate something by using machines or computers instead of people to do the work

humanoidadj. looking or acting like a human

fungusn. any one of a group of related plants such as molds, mushrooms, or yeasts that have no flowers and that live on dead or decaying things

neglectedadj. not given enough attention or care

tropicaladj. relating to the part of the world near the equator where the weather is always warm

hypothesizev. to suggest (an idea or theory); to make or suggest a hypothesis

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