Robotics could speed up stem cell research

By Mike Nagle

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Stem cell Developmental biology Cellular differentiation

Scientists hope to speed up the development of regenerative drugs
for diseases such as cancer by using robotics to automate stem cell

London-based biotechnology firm Plasticell hopes to use robotics to automate its Combicult technology to enable thousands of stem cell experiments to be conducted at once, rather than just a handful at a time by a single scientist.

The research will be conducted in collaboration with University College London and the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC) utilising a £1.1m (€1.7m) UK government grant.

Repair and regeneration of the body is dependent on stem cells, which are capable of differentiating into any specific cell types found in the body. The chemical pathways that help stem cells 'choose' which cells they will become can be modulated by drugs.

However, first these pathways need to be better understood in order to treat diseases such as cancer, which is characterised by uncontrolled cell growth and differentiation.

Dr Yen Choo, chief executive at Plasticell, explained to that the first step towards fulfilling the potential of stem cells is to speed up research into cell differentiation.

Once automated, scientists could use Plasticell's Combicult technology to test how thousands of factors - such as growth, nutrients, hormones or physical conditions - affect how stem cells give rise to tissue cells like lung, heart and brain cells.

"At the moment, experiments are done on a trial and error basis and since cell culture work is cumbersome a scientist can only handle a few experiments at any one time. However with our technology a scientist could carry out 250,000 experiments in parallel in a couple of weeks,"​ said Dr Choo.

"To do this many stem cell differentiation experiments in a conventional way would take a scientist a few lifetimes."

The technology could then provide scientists with the means to generate cells of any tissue type for clinical use. For example, a drug designed to combat heart disease could have its activity assessed on human heart cells or alternatively, liver cells could be produced to test drug toxicity.

The automation will use industry-standard robotic equipment housed in a sterile environment. This will increase productivity by enabling experiments to run 24/7 in a contaminant-free environment. The project will utilise the stem cell bioprocessing unit at University College London and advanced imaging methods from NIBSC, the site of the UK Stem Cell Bank.

"This technology offers a powerful key to the goal of developing pathways for the controlled differentiation of stem cells,"​ said Sir Aaron Klug, the Nobel laureate who is advising Plasticell. "This is absolutely required in order to realise the potential of regenerative medicine. The [Department of Trade and Industry] DTI grant is not only a milestone for Plasticell, but also for the UK's effort in the field."

Malcolm Wicks, UK Minister for Science and Innovation, said: "We want to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of stem cell research."

He continued: "Stem cell research has tremendous potential to tackle some of the most devastating diseases. It could benefit patients with conditions such as Parkinson's disease, juvenile diabetes and heart disease."

Once completed, Plasticell hopes to licence the technique to the wider research community. The company will also use the knowledge they gain through examining stem cell differentiation in their own research programme to develop drugs that regenerate tissue.

Related topics Preclinical Research QA/QC

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