SLAS 2020 Show Preview: SLAS in the sun

The Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening heads to San Diego for SLAS 2020

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Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening (SLAS)
SLAS 2020 International Conference & Exhibition
San Diego Convention Center
San Diego, California
January 25-29, 2020
SLAS in the sun
The Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening heads to San Diego for SLAS 2020
By Mel J. Yeates
SAN DIEGO—Data will be one of the key focuses of the SLAS 2020 International Conference and Exhibition, as the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening (SLAS) comes to sunny San Diego for some warm(er) weather in January.
DDNews spoke with both Melanie Leveridge, the director of Screening, Profiling & Mechanistic Biology at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and conference chair for SLAS 2020, and Mike Tarselli, SLAS’s scientific director, to gain insight about the upcoming meeting.
“With 10 conference tracks in the scientific program alongside an array of short courses, vendor tutorials and special interest groups, there is educational scientific content for everyone, whether you are a student researcher or experienced academic or drug discovery scientist. The vendor exhibition is packed full of cutting-edge technologies and is a great place to catch up with old colleagues and make many new connections,” says Leveridge. “Just take some comfy shoes, as you will cover a lot of ground.”
“We’re welcoming four new courses this year with topics ranging from Python and Data Analysis to pharmacological target engagement, which seeks to unravel why up to 50 percent of new drugs candidates wash out due to low efficacy against their targets,” adds Tarselli. “We’re also proud to offer selected talks, panels and podcasts on our (still new) online learning system, APPLIED.”
Leveridge points out, “For 2020, we have an overarching data theme, and in particular how artificial intelligence (AI) and access to ‘Big Data’ is changing the way we conduct drug discovery.”
“Other themes you’ll see throughout our conference will focus on functional genomics, which studies how biological gene networks contribute to a specific disease phenotype, and protein homeostasis, which advances pragmatic ideas about how regulation of protein concentrations through stabilization or degradation can ameliorate specific conditions,” Tarselli mentions.
“In addition to the Data Analysis and Informatics track, which has grown in attendance exponentially over the last couple of years, we also have two great keynote speakers who represent this field: Jackie Hunter from Benevolent AI and Leroy Cronin from the University of Glasgow, who will talk about AI-augmented drug discovery and the concept of ‘chemputing,’ respectively,” Leveridge states.
Hunter, who will be delivering the opening keynote speech, has more than 30 years of experience in the bioscience research sector across academia and industry, including leading neurology and gastrointestinal drug discovery and early clinical development for GSK. She now leads BenevolentAI, which uses AI to augment the research capability of drug scientists—from target identification and validation through medicinal chemistry and lead optimization, to clinical proof of concept.
Cronin’s group at the University of Glasgow has one of the largest multidisciplinary chemistry-based research teams in the world. The team is developing the concept of “chemputing,” which enables the universal digitization of chemistry in order to create artificial life forms, find alien life, further explore the digitization of chemistry, understand how information can be encoded into chemicals and construct chemical computers. Cronin will deliver the closing keynote for SLAS 2020.
SLAS has highlighted a few sessions and tracks of particular interest to DDNews’ readers.
“This year, for the first time, we have a track dedicated to precision medicine. This track will explore capabilities such as single-cell technologies and patient-derived cell systems, which enable high-throughput and high-resolution approaches to study disease in a more patient- and cell subtype-specific context,” Leveridge explains. “Ultimately these approaches should enable us to build assays and cell models that more readily translate into the clinic, which is really exciting.”
Leveridge tells DDNews that there have been some changes in this year’s programming, stating that “In putting together the scientific program for 2020, we wanted to offer much more than a collection of individual presentations. We have therefore identified opportunities for attendees to explore and critically evaluate themes that span several areas of technical focus and promise to raise drug discovery and biomedical research to the next level. Examples of such themes, which traverse multiple tracks, are the use of AI and machine learning (ML) as decision-making tools, strategies to confirm target engagement in vitro and in vivo, and approaches for targeting protein homeostasis.”
“The SLAS Ignite initiative is definitely worth highlighting,” she continues. “The aim of Ignite is to facilitate connections that result in pioneering new research, new products, innovative breakthroughs and commercialization opportunities. For 2020, we have two Ignite panel discussions where leaders in the field will discuss ‘Success stories in launching commercial products from initial ideas’ and ‘How diversity drives entrepreneurial success.’ There is also an Ignite short course in ‘How to articulate value propositions in scientific innovation.’”
The SLAS Ignite initiative helps new and emerging companies get a foot in the door, and helps foster partnership opportunities between researchers and professionals. The initiative also presents the latest research from academic research institutions. According to Tarselli, the Ignite programming includes three panels and sixteen start-up companies competing for an award, as well as expert consultation.
“Our Ignite programming has grown large enough to need its own locale, the ‘Ignite Theatre,’” Tarselli says. “Here we’ll have presentations ... along with a special NASA-inspired session on translational research to facilitate space medicine—how can we prepare astronauts for longer manned missions using lab technology?”
“Alongside those events, [SLAS has] our expanded roster of Innovation AveNEW companies—those startups in our space that are competing for a cash prize and notability among their peers—and the rebooted Journal Strategy Session to engage potential authors to write for our two in-house publications, SLAS Discovery and SLAS Technology,” he adds.
SLAS has designed their Innovation AveNEW to give emerging startup companies the opportunity to engage and participate in the event without paying exhibition fees. Innovation AveNEW companies gain exposure for their products and service concepts in a specially designated area on the exhibition floor.
Companies exhibiting in Innovation AveNEW will make brief presentations to a panel of judges who will bestow the new SLAS Ignite Award, honoring the best startup or emerging company. Judges look at a combination of key concepts: marketing plan, presence and potential; funding prospects; plan for growth; and the existence of balanced company leadership, among other qualities.
“As SLAS evolves, we are starting to grow into a full lifecycle model for new therapeutics, beyond preclinical small-molecule work. For example, our Biologics track has slowly morphed into new modalities, where we’ll discuss CAR T, cell delivery, digital approaches, lab-on-particle and antibody engineering,” notes Tarselli. “Those interested in diagnostics would enjoy the Precision Medicine track ... along with tissue engineering and instrumental miniaturization approaches from our Micro-Nano content. Finally, the thought of ‘closing the circle’ pervades our programming; we want to learn from clinical failures and successes to improve development of new assays, drugs and instruments.”
As for why Tarselli recommends attending SLAS: “Information density—I admit a particular bias as an SLAS staffer, but as a card-carrying scientist, I’d say there’s few places like SLAS2020 to get everything in one go over three to five days. One-on-one instruction, panel events with scientific luminaries, our scientific interest groups, our award-winning exhibition (the biggest yet), 150-plus speakers and 300 to 400 posters should be everything your ardent tech enthusiast needs to learn in a short amount of time,” he says. “It’s also a great time to come to San Diego—expected to be mild and beautiful, unlike many traditional biotech ‘hubs’ like Boston or Seattle in January.”
When asked if she could give DDNews readers a brief peek into what SLAS plans for next year’s meeting, Leveridge adds, “We are always keeping our ear to the ground for emerging areas of science and how delegates at the meeting respond to different track topics, and we will continue to evolve the program accordingly. For example, we recognize that ‘omics technologies and gene editing are topics that continue to gain momentum and should likely have more ‘air time.’ However, we also recognize that it is important to maintain our core topics such as assay development and screening, which people come back for year after year, so those will be a key part of the agenda also.”
“As readers might be aware, we now host a sister event in Europe over the summer; 2019 was in Barcelona, and 2020 will be in Vienna. These events allow us a chance to experiment with new short courses, new track topics and different audience interests. In Vienna, we’ll be doubling down on target engagement, precision medicine and all things AI/ML, and experimenting with autophagy, rare disease biology and super-resolution microscopy,” Tarselli concludes. “Were I a betting man, I’d expect some of these topics to show up at SLAS2021 in 14 months’ time.”
SLAS 2020 Exhibition
Level up the conference experience with the SLAS 2020 Exhibition offerings. The exhibition facilitates friendly, professional interaction among providers and product/technology users, allowing attendees to gather important information, make critical connections and be better prepared to help guide product purchasing decisions at their organizations.
Highlights of the SLAS2020 Exhibition include:
  • A showcase of new life-sciences discovery and technology products and services from hundreds of leading product and service providers.
  • The SLAS2020 Poster Gallery, featuring hundreds of scientific posters and the opportunity to interact directly with poster authors and presenters.
  • The SLAS New Product Award designation that recognizes up to three new and especially innovative products and services being showcased in the exhibition.
  • Innovation AveNEW, a dedicated area of the exhibition that hosts a selected group of emerging and startup companies offering promising new laboratory technologies.
  • The SLAS Booth, a place to meet other attendees, SLAS leaders and professional team members; representatives of SLAS technical journals; and to take advantage of SLAS Career Connections.
  • The SLAS Exhibition Theater, home to Spotlight Solutions presentations and other high-profile activities through the Conference and Exhibition.

SLAS 2020 Short Course Program
Saturday, Jan. 25: One-Day Courses
  • Applications of Biophysical Methods in Small-Molecule Drug Discovery
  • Assay Guidance Workshop for High-Throughput Screening and Lead Discovery
  • Phenotypic Screening: Why, When and How
  • Streamlining your Laboratory with Python, an Introduction (laptop required)
Saturday, Jan. 25: Half-Day Courses
  • Introduction to Flow Cytometry
  • Advanced Flow Cytometry
Sunday, Jan. 26: One-Day Courses
  • 3D Cell-Based Assays for Drug De-Risking
  • 3D Printing for Scientific Applications (live demo)
  • Data Analytics with KNIME (laptop required)
  • Data Management in the Age of Big Data, Mobile, and the Cloud
  • High-Content Screening: An Introduction to Instrumentation, Assay Development, Screening, Image and Data Analysis
  • Introduction to Laboratory Automation
  • Lab-on-a-Chip: From Technology to Bioanalysis on Chip
  • Microcontrollers, the IoT and our Laboratories (hands on, laptop required)
  • Sample Management: Best Practice, Trends and Challenges
  • Why it Matters: Value Propositions in Scientific Innovation (laptop required)—SLAS Ignite Short Course
Sunday, Jan. 26: Half-Day Courses
  • Liquid Handling Essentials (hands on)—morning course
  • Pharmacological Target Engagement and Validation
  • Set-up and Validation of 3D Primary, Stem Cell and Immortalized Cultures for Downstream Microplate Reader and Imaging Applications
  • An Introduction to Mass Spectrometry and its Applications within Drug Discovery
  • Genome Editing Applications in Drug Discovery and Target Validation
  • Liquid Handling Essentials (hands on)—afternoon course

SLAS 2020 Scientific Podium Program
Podium presentations are organized into ten educational tracks.
Advances in Bioanalytics and Biomarkers Track
This track will highlight important developments in bioanalytical technologies, including advances in label-free technologies, applications of target and mechanism deconvolution techniques, and omics approaches to biomarker analysis. Planned sessions include:
  • Label-Free Bioanalytical Techniques
  • Target Engagement and Pathways
  • Target and Mechanism Deconvolution After Phenotypic Screens
Assay Development and Screening
This track will focus on recent innovations across the assay development and screening field, including the adoption of novel technologies and intelligent informatics approaches, to enable the implementation of effective screening campaigns and hit triage strategies to identify, validate and characterize potential leads. There will be an emphasis on recent case studies where cutting-edge assay approaches to improve the success rates of screening have been coupled with next-generation therapeutic modalities and novel mechanisms of action to broaden the scope of target classes that can be drugged. Planned sessions include:
  • Advanced Imaging and High-Content Assays
  • Biochemical and Biophysical Assays
  • Advanced In Vitro Cell Culture Systems
  • Optimization of Assays for Challenging Targets for Lead Discovery and Screening
Automation and High-Throughput Technologies
This track focuses on the innovative use of biological or chemistry applications, tools, technologies and techniques as they pertain to automated high-throughput screening, the advancement of laboratory processes, or improvement of the quality and impact of experimental laboratory data. Emphasis is placed on advancements in chemically and biologically relevant technologies using engineering, analytical, informatics and application to cutting-edge automation-assisted research. Planned sessions include:
  • Automating Screens Using Physiologically-Relevant Models
  • Advanced Imaging Technologies to Bridge the Gap between High-Content and High-Throughput
  • Screening Automation: Modular vs. Highly-Integrated Systems Automating Chemistry in the Age of AI
  • 1536 and Beyond: HT Miniaturization While Maintaining Physiological Relevance
  • Open Source Automation
Biologics Discovery
This track will emphasize innovative solutions to increase the breadth, depth and impact of early-stage efforts to fuel the biologics pipeline. The success of biologic therapeutics, such as monoclonal antibodies, T cell receptors, cellular therapies and other signaling molecules in the clinic, has put greater emphasis on earlier-stage efforts to increase efficiency, productivity and innovation—in particular, how automation and screening can play a key role in the progression of new therapeutics as well as the impact of novel assays, microfluidics and high-content screening campaigns for biologics discovery. Planned sessions include:
  • Antibody Therapeutics Discovery: Focus on Bispecifics and Immune Checkpoint Modulators
  • Cell Therapies for Cancer: CAR-Ts in Development
  • Future Technologies for Biologics Drug Discovery
Cellular Technologies
Attendees will learn from industry and academic leaders about new cellular technologies with a focus on application and translation of complex multicellular tissues and organ-like systems. The track will also address the application of genome-editing tools and genetic screens such as CRISPR/Cas to develop high-fidelity models of normal and diseased human tissues for investigation of their physiologic behaviors and pharmacologic responses. Planned sessions include:
  • Demonstrating Translational Relevance of Organoid and Multicellular Tissues for Preclinical Models of Human Disease
  • Application of Organ-on-chips and Micro-Physiological Systems
  • Development and Applications of Functional Genomics Technologies
Data Analysis and Informatics
This track will focus on the rapidly evolving role of digital technology and scientific information management including the strategy and culture, as well as the hardware and software of the modern digital research lab. Emphasis will be placed on turning data into knowledge and knowledge into insight with additional consideration for translational science, decision support and the meaning of automation in the digital age. Planned sessions include:
  • The Lab of the Future: Automation in the Digital Age
  • Data Strategy: Sharing and Repurposing Data
  • From Instrument to Decision: Improved Decision-Making on Complex Data at Scale
Drug Target Strategies
This track will provide assay and screening scientists with cutting-edge information on technologies and methodologies that enable them to advance chemical matter for clinically relevant pharmacologies. Planned sessions include:
  • Protein Homeostasis: New Drug Discovery Directions
  • Drugging RNA
  • Advances in Cellular Target Engagement
Micro- and Nanotechnologies
This year’s track will highlight advances in single-cell and high-throughput technologies, miniaturization of analytical instruments and robust fabrication technologies needed for commercialization. Planned sessions include:
  • Microdevices for High-Throughput Cellular and Biomolecular Profiling
  • Novel Sampling Strategies and Highly Miniaturized Systems for Mass Spectrometric Analysis
  • Technology Development for Micro and Nanofluidic Devices
Molecular Libraries
The Molecular Libraries track will focus on the science of developing and leveraging small-molecule libraries for hit identification and target validation. It will cover the breadth of strategies for library utility, covering traditional small-molecule libraries, DNA-encoded libraries and fragment collections, as well as explore the outer fringes of the small molecule world—including looking at the use of macromolecules, natural products and macrocycles. Planned sessions include:
  • Small Molecule Libraries
  • DNA-Encoded Libraries
  • Chemistry AI
Precision Medicine Technologies
The track will emphasize the application of state-of-the-art, quantitative, high-throughput and high-resolution approaches to both cellular models and complex tissues. These strategies enable multiparametric computational analyses to reveal the complex interplay of genetics, cell types and drugs to advance precision medicine. Topics include improvements in stem cell-based disease modeling, bioengineering, molecular and cellular assays, and bioinformatic approaches. Planned sessions include:
  • Tools to Resolve Disease Complexity
  • Applications of Single Cell Analysis to Disease Studies
  • Systematic Data-Based Approaches for Precision Medicine

SLAS 2020 Awards
Every year, SLAS hosts and recognizes several award winners who represent the best of the society’s programs and mission.
SLAS Innovation Award: The SLAS Innovation Award is a $10,000 cash prize recognizing one exceptional podium presenter from SLAS2020. This award recognizes exceedingly innovative science or research, and the potential for contributing to the advancement of life-sciences technology and/or discovery.
Tony B. Academic Travel Award: Students, graduate students, post-doctoral associates and junior faculty (less than four years in first academic appointment) may apply for this travel award. The applicant must be the primary author of a submitted abstract and must present their research in either a poster or podium presentation at the conference. Those selected receive complimentary travel, shared lodging and registration to participate in SLAS2020.
SLAS Student Poster Award: The SLAS Academic Poster Award recognizes the innovative research by students, graduate students, post-doctoral associates and junior faculty (less than four years in first academic appointment) who are chosen to present a poster during SLAS2020.
SLAS Ignite Award: The SLAS Ignite Award recognizes the best startup or emerging company exhibiting within Innovation AveNEW, a specially designated area within the SLAS 2020 Exhibition. Companies selected to exhibit within Innovation AveNEW, and who opt in to compete for the SLAS Ignite Award, will be judged by an SLAS panel on a combination of key concepts—including their marketing plan, market presence and potential; funding prospects; plan for growth and the existence of a balanced company leadership, among other qualities.
SLAS New Product Award: All SLAS 2020 exhibitors who will be presenting new products at the event are encouraged to participate in this competition. The product entry must be less than one year old in its current form (since SLAS’ previous annual conference) to be considered.
SLAS News: SLAS Technology features University of Wisconsin research
OAK BROOK, Ill.—December’s SLAS Technology will be featuring an article entitled “Automated System for Small-Population Single-Particle Processing Enabled by Exclusive Liquid Repellency” on its cover. It outlines research led by Dr. Chao Li of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In the article, Li and his team describe how they combined a robotic liquid handler, an automated microscopic imaging system and real-time image-processing software for single-particle identification to create an automated platform using exclusive liquid repellency (ELR) microdrops for single-particle isolation, identification and retrieval.
As the use of single-cell applications has become important to the study of cancer heterogeneity, developmental biology, neurobiology and immunology, there is an increased interest in identifying and isolating specific single cells from a heterogeneous biological sample to discover its unique traits and heterogeneity. But this isolation remains challenging due to the large sample volume and cell numbers needed, which could impede the isolation of single cells and make them unsuitable for rare-cell applications like circulating tumor cell research.
As single-cell printing techniques that handle smaller sample sizes have developed over time, sample loss is still an issue due to the difficulty of using traditional single-liquid phase liquid-handling and storage equipment like multiwell plates. Although a variety of specialized multi-liquid phase platforms have been developed for efficiently manipulating small amounts of cell samples without significant liquid loss, these platforms are usually based on a closed-system design, which makes external access for individual cell manipulation and retrieval difficult, and remains extremely costly.
Li’s team has developed an automated platform using ELR microdrops for lossless single-cell isolation, identification and retrieval. It combines the use of a robotic liquid handler, an automated microscopic imaging system and real-time image-processing software for single-particle identification. It also enables rapid, hands-free and robust isolation of microdrop-encapsulated rare cellular samples, and further on-chip cell culture or down-stream analysis. This application is distinct from other liquid repellent systems and reportedly showed no compromise of liquid adhesion on solid surfaces, enabling unique applications.
SLAS News: An analytical auto-commentary
OAK BROOK, Ill.—As the need for hard-to-measure chemical and biological compound-oriented identification is on the rise, the demand for more accurate measurement tools increases. November’s SLAS Technology auto-commentary, “On the Way to Efficient Analytical Measurements: The Future of Robot-Based Measurements,” highlights potentially suitable replacement measurement systems and processes as outlined in the book Automation Solutions for Analytical Measurements: Concepts and Applications.
SLAS Technology auto-commentary authors—Dr. Heidi Fleischer of the Institute of Automation at the University of Rostock in Germany and Dr. Kerstin Thurow of the Center for Life Science Automation at the University of Rostock—discuss in detail the challenges of gathering analytical measurements through the tried and true high-throughput and high-content screening systems of the past, along with their potential replacements.
Because process-measurement technology needs have expanded to the fields of environmental engineering, biotechnology and medicine, certain hard-to-measure samples like high pressures, temperatures and highly corrosive reagents make it very difficult to gather quality readings using more standardized measuring tools.
Enter realized-based measurement systems. These systems use robots as central system integrators, allowing for a centralized and closed automation system. In the book, they are tested against and with both centralized open and decentralized systems.
“Using mobile robots as transportation elements, this system can be extended to a decentralized open system performing a multitude of different applications and thus providing much more flexibility,” Fleischer and Thurow said. “The highest degree of flexibility and the ability to expand can be achieved with integrated robotics using mobile robots that not only execute transportation tasks, but also are used for direct sample manipulation on different locally distributed automation stations.”
The authors also discussed software systems as the highest-level workflow control, sample transportation using mobile robots, automated subsystems and measurement stations. Thurow and Fleischer conclude that the concept of using integrated robots is promising, but that there are still underlying challenges to overcome before these processes reach the fully automated stage.
Students snag SLAS 2020 travel awards
OAK BROOK, Ill.—SLAS has selected 53 life-sciences students to receive SLAS Tony B. Academic Travel Awards. The awards are named for Tony Beugelsdijk of Los Alamos National Laboratory, an Association for Laboratory Automation (ALA, one of the two organizations that merged to create SLAS) co-founder who passed away in 2009.
Listed alphabetically by home country, the SLAS Tony B. Academic Travel Award winners for 2020 are:
Franco Caram, National University of La Plata 
Souptik Basu, Griffith University
Lynn Nazareth
Choon Leng So, University of Queensland
Cyro Lucas
Lucas Sousa, Federal University of Goiás
Tanya Bennet, University of British Columbia
Samuel Berryman
Eric Cheng, University of British Columbia
Richard Cheng
Jeong Hyun Lee, University of British Columbia
Shashi Malladi, University of Toronto
Kenza Samlali
Jiahui Sun, Shanghai Jiao Tong University
Alexander Jansson, Technical University of Denmark
Maximilian Benz, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
Marius Brehm, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
Tobias Neckernuss, Ulm University - Sensific
Saskia Reichelt, Technische Universitaet Dresden
Engy Shokry, Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich  
Shingo Honda, University of Tokyo
Maciej Grajewski
Witold Postek
Sandra Skorupska, Warsaw University of Technology
Patrycja Sokolowska
Agata Blasiak
Eliza Fong
Theodore Kee
United States
Peter Attayek
Amar Basu, Bioelectronica
Julia Bauman, Broad Institute
Valentine Courouble, Scripps Research
Daniela Dengler, Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery
Joseph De Rutte
Aviv Elor, NIH/NCATS
Mark Hendricks, Whitman College
Jorden Johnson, University of Minnesota
Jihwan Lee, Rice University
Chia-Wei Liu
Sidharth Modha, University of California Riverside
Prithvijit Mukherjee, Northwestern University
Cesar Patino, Northwestern University
Colleen Riordan
Avtar Singh
Sunil Singh
Adam Szmelter, University of Illinois at Chicago
Pradip Thakuri, University of Akron
Peter Wang, University of California, Los Angeles
Yilian Wang
Xiao Wang, Harvard Medical School
Xuan Yang, Emory University
Jianhou Zhang, University of California Riverside
The notable undergraduate students, graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and junior faculty member from these 12 countries were selected by an independent panel of judges who evaluated their abstract proposals based on scientific merit and potential impact of the research toward the advancement of life-sciences discovery and technology. The winners will present their research at the SLAS 2020 in January.

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