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Full speed: robotic lab in Flanders joins COVID-19 fight

Scientists from all over the globe rely on a robotic laboratory in Flanders, called Caps-It, to screen millions of substances in search of a powerful virus inhibitor that works against the coronavirus. Thanks to its cutting-edge technology, the lab does so at an unprecedented speed. “We knew we would need this kind of infrastructure someday,” comments Johan Neyts, head of the Laboratory for Virology, Antiviral Medicine & Vaccine Research at the Rega Institute of KU Leuven (Flanders), which is the driving force behind Caps-It.

Caps IT robotic lab KU Leuven

The safest on earth

For months now, the Caps-It lab in Leuven (Flanders), a robotic laboratory with the highest biosafety level in the world, is at the heart of the global race for a drug to stop the coronavirus from spreading. “About 1.6 million molecules have already been tested here,” says Neyts. “In just a few days, we went through the active ingredients of virtually all existing medicines in the world – some 15,000 to 18,000 compounds. Thanks to an ingenious, compact system built around a central robotic arm that places the virus capsules under fully automatic microscopes, we can achieve remarkable testing volumes seen nowhere else in the world.”

While its global impact is huge, the lab itself barely measures 3 by 4 meters and contains two identical equipment setups. Neyts: “If one fails, the software immediately switches to the other. In this way, a test is never interrupted.”

Low cost - but ultra-high speed

The construction of Caps-It started in 2016, and the lab was fully operational at the start of 2019. “The idea for the lab matured about ten years ago,” Neyts explains. “Today, we’re running at maximum capacity and  receive requests for research from all over the world, from academic teams, biotech companies and all major pharmaceutical players.”

The lab was launched with support from Flanders’ Scientific Research Fund and the University of Leuven (KU Leuven). Neyts: “Compared to other manned labs with this safety level, the amount spent on Caps-It was peanuts, and we can work so much faster here.”

The only way forward is up

Neyts admits that searching for a medicine that acts against a virus is like looking for a needle in a haystack, but he remains hopeful. “I know for a fact that, in time, we will find a powerful and safe remedy for COVID-19. But such a meticulous process takes time. Of the 1.6 million substances we have already tested, only a handful are promising as potential virus inhibitors. So, it's important for us to handle that first selection process very quickly.”

Thanks to Neyts and his team, Flanders positions itself – yet again – as a frontrunner in innovative life sciences R&D. A few months ago, we reported on how UGent, one of the region’s five universities, offers a beacon of hope in the COVID-19 fight through the use of antibodies from a llama named Winter.

About the Rega Institute (and its pioneering work)

A biomedical research center founded in 1954 in Leuven (Flanders), the Rega Institute specializes in research on medicines and therapies for the treatment of bacterial and viral infections. The center pioneered in the 1950s with a polio vaccine and gained world fame with its HIV-inhibitor tenofovi. Today, 20 out of a total of 35 million AIDS patients are treated with this medicine. 

More info

KU Leuven
Reported by
KU Leuven
14 October 2020

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