The process of cell research is a delicate, hands-on technique critical to the study of human disease and drug research. Until now, the hands have been those of scientists, but a lab full of robots has successfully created its first culture — so, why hasn't it happened before now?
It turns out growing cell cultures is a pretty tricky business. The cultures need to grow in petri dishes made with a specific "broth" to nurture them, as cells tend to like it warm and moist. Once they've reached a certain size, scientists then hand transfer them via a pipette them to yet another petri dish until they are ready for their intended use. Not only do machines tend to not work well with "warm and moist," but imagine Robocop trying to handle a pipette and petri dish.
Imagine no more. Researchers from the Fraunhaufer Institutes in Germany have tackled the issue by creating a series of robots and machines to ramp up creating cell cultures to a factory-like process estimated to produce around 500 cultures a month. They've been created to operate in high humidity and to analyze and pass complex data between the moving parts and its operating system.
One robot handles the first generation of petri dishes called "multiplier plates." They are moved around until ready for evaluation by an automated microscope. The review is comprehensive, changing the light and focus to obtain the best data that is then fed into a software program. Analysis then shows which cultures are ready for the next step and which are back to the multiplier. Those that make the cut — the ones sized 100 — 200 micrometers — are then removed with a hollow needle and moved on to the next phase. This huge step forward now frees up scientists to perform new experiments and other tasks.
The gang at Frauhaufer are no strangers to automating these kinds of delicate processes — they already have a system that monitors the growth of sheets of skin. We'll let you pause for a moment and ponder THAT. What makes this next generation cell factory special is it is fairly compact — able to fit in a small lab and it's modular so it can be customized to handle all or part of the process.
Plus, in the "is it cool or is it creepy category," it is also thought scientists will likely be able to "teach" the system to recognize various cell types based on their characteristics.
Distilling the small tasks of cell growth means a big achievement. Achievement is fine as long as the researchers can guarantee their shiny new cell factory doesn't start growing brains.