We. Are. Back! The 2023 Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening (SLAS) conference and exhibition returned to San Diego with record-breaking attendance from attendees from across the globe with palpable energy.

In recent years, we learned how automation continued to drive scientific discoveries even during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. This success has fueled innovation, enabling labs to work more efficiently, and sustainably to address key challenges in health care.

Here are two trends that reverberated throughout the conference’s scientific sessions and exhibition hall:

The automation and screening communities are not the only things coming together

At an airport en route to SLAS, an industry colleague posed the question, “Where else can an automation engineer get the opportunity to learn first-hand from biologists about their challenges in order to develop optimized solutions and vice-versa?” This question—and more importantly, it’s answer—is why SLAS conferences are so powerful. SLAS brings people together from diverse technical backgrounds that otherwise may not interact. This fosters the exchange of ideas and the output is innovation, collaboration, partnership, and mutual benefit.

The benefit of bringing two (or more) components together that otherwise do not interact is a concept that also has gained momentum in the drug discovery field, and a topic that was echoed throughout the SLAS scientific sessions. The question is: “What happens when one protein with a specific function is brought into close proximity with another entity?” This approach is most well-understood in the context of proteolysis-targeting chimeras, where a protein is linked with an E3-ligase that tags the protein for degradation in a ubiquitin-mediated mechanism. The idea of “induced proximity” has expanded to many other mechanisms, including protecting proteins from degradation, promoting post-translational modifications such as phosphorylation, methylation, among others, and stabilizing complexes. These strategies may offer similar therapeutic advantages for challenging targets.

How to identify potential lead compounds that exhibit this behavior – often referred to as PROTACs, molecular glues, monoDACs, and more – was another key question at the conference. To address this challenge, we heard about new and improved technologies, ranging from traditional fluorescence-based displacement assays to DNA-encoded libraries (DELs), and affinity selection mass spectrometry, using either size exclusion chromatography approaches or biochip arrays tailored with defined surface chemistries. It will be exciting to see if bringing proteins together offers the same promise as bringing our diverse SLAS members and greater community together to collaborate and tackle the next challenges in drug discovery.

Using artificial intelligence to tackle real challenges

 The prevalence of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) across the industry continues to rapidly grow. The ability to analyze massive datasets to inform next steps offers solutions to accelerate drug discovery, decrease costs, and maximize efficiency. There is still debate over when to integrate AI within a drug discovery pipeline. Some argue that the development of generative models allows companies to simulate drug-target interactions to identify new leads. Others expressed skepticism around the success of de novo virtual screening, while agreeing that predictive modeling can rapidly inform on improving compound affinity/potency, minimize toxicity, and other pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic properties to accelerate drug development. There was also discussion on how to make these datasets accessible to the community. The opening keynote highlighted how open access to data, albeit slowly, is increasing. Separately from open access data, more technology providers are including AI capabilities, giving clients access to AI/ML tools and expertise, contributing to how SLAS makes cutting-edge technologies accessible to the greater scientific community.

Of course, SLAS 2023 featured many more intriguing topics including single cell technologies, imaging solutions (many integrating AI/ML), and organoids on chips, among others. After a fantastic week of scientific content, technology, and new opportunities to come together, the momentum is building and we are excited to come together with the community to build on this foundation and deliver even more exciting results next year in Boston!