Over the past 10 years, HP’s research and development teams have been working on ways to transfer standard inkjet technology for use in pharmaceutical labs. The result: HP’s Direct Digital Dispenser (HP D300), a printer-like system that helps scientists develop new drugs. Scientists at pharmaceutical companies such as Astra Zeneca, GlaxoSmithKline and SIGA Technologies are using the D300 to develop new drugs. SIGA has already put the D300 into practice to develop an experimental compound dubbed ST-246, which would be given to people who are diagnosed with smallpox too late for a vaccine to help.
How did HP take technology from the copy room to the biochemical lab?
It started about five years ago, when HP realized that the precision technology used in its Officejet Pro X printhead might have applications in the life sciences space. The Officejet Pro X has a sophisticated printhead that’s able to spew out tiny drops of ink for ultra high-resolution printing. According to Joe Dody, business manager of specialty printing systems, HP’s first printer, the “Thinkjet,” had 12 nozzles with drop volumes of 220 picoliters each. (One picoliter is one-trillionth of a liter. For scale, think: an average raindrop contains several hundred thousand picoliters.) Photo-quality printing demands drops of less than 10 picoliters. The Officejet Pro X has a sophisticated page-wide print bar that features a fixed inkjet printhead, which images the full width of the paper path in one operation and contains 42,240 nozzles jetting drops of 6 picoliters each, one at a time through individual nozzles. “We spent a lot of money and time getting the drops that small,” Dody says.
At first, Dody’s team considered adapting the technology for drug delivery and drug discovery systems, but eventually settled on just the latter, because they wanted to be on the front end of the pharmaceutical process. “We imagined the application and we worked with customers to convince ourselves and the industry that we were creating value in doing it,” he says, “So we gained support from HP to make a business out of it.”
When you think of biochemists developing drugs in a lab, you might imagine a team of white-coated professionals hunched over tables, pipettes in hand, to dispense minuscule droplets of chemical compounds onto slides. That process is called titration. If you imagined these experiments taking weeks and months of painstaking repetition and recording --not to mention a large margin for human error-- you’d be right.
The way the discovery process at a typical drug company occurs, Dody explains, is that researchers have about a million molecules either extracted from nature or chemically produced. These small amounts of liquid are trapped in a tiny vial and kept in a freezer, and scientists use them to understand how molecular structures can act on disease. Dody says it takes “brute force” applying droplets one by one to a well plate--essentially a piece of plastic the size of a 3x5 index card covered with dimples that hold the compound.
“A researcher applies between 200,000 to a million drops of the compound to test against the disease target and they hope that 10,000 are actually hits," Dody says. "Then they can determine what’s common between molecules and what’s the dose at which these drug molecules are causing a positive interaction with disease." With precious little fluid and the need to create doses that span six orders of magnitude from one to one million concentration units in a process called serial dilution, Dody says 95 percent of the work and materials end up wasted. Not to mention that developing a drug this way can take up to 15 years and failed attempts can cost $1.5 billion.
"That is where we come in,” he says.
It used to take researchers a half day to simply set up their experiment. Leveraging chips that HP developed in its fourth-generation printer, the company’s D300 allows biologists to “place” drops of experimental pharmaceutical drugs as “ink.” The process is called titration, and it’s commonly used in labs to determine the concentration of chemical compounds such as medications.