Cell Culture Automation
Cell culture equipment gets small and "appliance-like"
For high-throughput, multi-user laboratories that are involved in running diverse assays and demand high capacity and walkup capabilities, investing in the right robotic systems becomes critical. Several factors come into play when choosing the right system to adopt. Cost and availability of space are always important considerations. Expandable capacity, ease of use and integration of multiple systems are particularly important for labs looking to grow significantly. Reliability and technical support are critical to labs dealing with multiple users and roundthe- clock use. Options for automating are often expensive and labor intensive, and customization is not always feasible. Hence, making the right choices early on is critical.
A lot of processes involved in cell culture that were once performed manually by skilled technicians, are now being automated by robotic systems connected to each other by software programs that help coordinate all the various activities. The use of cells in the drug pipeline has also increased in recent years.
“Pharma is now moving toward biopharma, which is driving the need for cell culture automation,” says Graham Threadgill, director of life science automation, Discovery Products Business Center, Beckman Coulter Inc. Cells are used for primary and secondary screening from early discovery all the way to drug manufacturing. Hence, the systems designed to automate cell culturing are both plate-based and flask-based to accommodate small- and large-cell volumes. Particularly in drug discovery, more companies are migrating from biochemical to cell-based assays.
“There is a continuing trend toward more cell-based assays, and we are observing this trend in the large number of requests that we are receiving for environmentally controlled systems for assays and plate-based cell maintenance,” says Debra Toburen, senior product manager of integrated systems at Velocity11 (now a part of Agilent Technologies). “Fifty to 80 percent of the assays that some of our customers are running are cell-based.”
The robotics for cell culture automation range from the large, motion-controlled tabletop systems that incorporate several robotic components and can perform multiple washings, incubations and readings all in one run to those that consist of only the basic components needed for an assay, such as the dispenser, washer and reader. The trend being observed is the replacement of large automation platforms with smaller workstations that are individually managed by a few people, as companies shift their strategies from shotgun approaches with large libraries to screening with smaller and more targeted libraries.
“Five years ago we saw giant rooms full of automation, and we now find that it is trending down to more individually managed laboratory systems,” says David M. Donofrio, director of market development at Molecular Devices (now part of MDS Analytical Technologies).
Automation is also becoming less specialized and being incorporated in various labs within the same organization. “In the past, researchers wrote their own methods, programmed and tested them. But now, all they are looking to do is push a few buttons to change a few variables,” says Threadgill. “You no longer have the automation expert in the organization, and so you need to make the automation systems much easier to use, more simple and ‘appliance-like.’” The automation systems for cell culture are specially designed to offer a protected, contamination- free work area that can be controlled for temperature and humidity. Hence, software control is turning out to be a critical aspect.
“For cell culture, seeding and feeding cells can takes days if not weeks, and the robotic systems are often running overnight. The software has to be able to handle and coordinate all those processes throughout the long time period,” says Threadgill. The software also manages data handling and sample tracking to determine what is happening to each sample throughout the entire process.
Users are also looking to vendors for more service and technical support, and many companies have started offering multiple levels of customer training. “We provide on-site, end-user training on how to write a protocol and access the system,” says Toburen.
However, for those customers looking to become their companies’ resident experts on the use of the platform, Velocity11 provides more extensive technical training. “They [customers] will come on-site and get trained on all instruments and software to help them gain the necessary expertise.”
Tanuja Koppal, Ph.D., is a freelance science writer and consultant based in Randolph, N.J.
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