Discovering Medicines, Using Robots and Computers

Discovering Medicines, Using Robots and Computers


Anne Carpenter
Imaging Platform Director
Broad Institute of Harvard & MIT
Cambridge, MA 02142 USA

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Scientists who are working to discover new medicines often use robots to prepare samples of cells, allowing them to test chemicals to identify those that might be used to treat diseases. Students will meet a scientist who works to identify new medicines. She created free software that "looks" at images of cells and determines which images show cells that have responded to the potential medicines. Students will learn about how this technology is currently enabling research to identify new antibiotics to treat tuberculosis. Students will complete hands-on activities that demonstrate how new medicines can be discovered using robots and computer software, starring the student as "the computer." In the process, the students learn about experimental design, including positive and negative controls. Students should have some introductory knowledge about the following topics: (1) biology: students should have a basic understanding of infection and good hygiene, they should know what bacteria and cells are; (2) chemistry: the students should know what a chemical compound (molecule) is. They should have an understanding that medicines, also called “drugs”, are chemical compounds; (3) basic experimental design: students should understand the terms “samples” and “testing”. All hand-outs necessary for this video lesson can be downloaded below.

Instructor Biography

Dr. Carpenter's research group creates software to extract the richest information possible from biological images, primarily for identifying the genetic underpinnings of, and potential treatments for, human disease. Click here to read a full bio.

Additional Online Resources

The following sites provide lesson plans on bacterial growth experiments (testing everyday samples for bacterial growth on plates):

Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s virtual lab on culturing every day bacteria (does not require plates and agar materials)

Culturing microbes that produce antibiotics

Video clips that demonstrate or discuss topics mentioned in this BLOSSOMS lesson from Howard Hughes Medical Institute:
(all are available here: and many can also be ordered for free delivery in the United States of America on DVD from HHMI following the instructions on that page)

South Africa: Tuberculosis (3 minutes 8 seconds): A glimpse of the TB ward at a South African hospital, illustrating an illness associated with the AIDS epidemic.

Cheek Cells and Bacteria (1 minute 27 seconds): Dr. Brett Finlay enlists a student volunteer to show the surprisingly high amount of bacteria found in his own mouth.

Penicillin acting on bacteria (33 seconds): Penicillin, as shown in this video, causes the cell walls of bacteria to rupture. 

Size Analogies of Bacteria and Viruses (1 minute 43 seconds): Dr. Finlay and Dr. Richard Ganem use physical analogies to compare the size of bacteria and viruses relative to a standard mammalian cell. 

Animations that demonstrate screening, with narration (“Cell screening” is particularly valuable):

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute prepares a large variety of resources including lectures, animations, and interactive lessons:

Lesson plans relating to topics mentioned in this BLOSSOMS lesson: Exploring Tuberculosis and Other Microbial Diseases

Video lectures (~25-45 minutes) that demonstrate or discuss topics mentioned in this BLOSSOMS lesson from the Midsummer Nights Science series at the Broad Institute:

Catching a Summer Bug: Dyann Wirth, PhD
How can measles be making a come-back? How did West Nile virus get from Africa to Arlington? Dyann Wirth retraces the steps of infectious diseases, and shows how researchers are using genomics to prevent future epidemics.

Robots versus Disease: Anne Carpenter, PhD
Robotic microscopes can produce millions of images a day, bringing human, animal and even bacterial cells into a close-up view. The challenge is to sort through this mountain of biological information to uncover meaningful results. Anne Carpenter will describe how biologists can train computers to "look" at images and learn to find cells displaying rare and unusual characteristics, thereby enabling research on diseases like cancer and tuberculosis.

Moving Molecules to Man: Robert Gould, PhD
How do scientists make new drugs? How does the process work and how do universities, companies and the government interact along the way? Will the deeper knowledge of human genetics change how drugs are discovered? Robert Gould will discuss the steps from understanding the biology of a potential drug to gaining approval to sell it, and how the process might be different in the future.

A Race Against Resistance: Deb Hung, MD, PhD
At every turn, it seems there is another report of dangerous bacteria outwitting the antibiotics designed to kill them. Scientists have been racing to find new antibiotics but alarmingly, progress has been slow, with few new antibiotic classes discovered in the past forty years. Deb Hung will describe how new genomic technologies may enable the discovery of new antimicrobial therapies, thereby helping to turn the tide against drug-resistant bacteria.