Lab Manager speaks to Dan O’Connor, vice president, drug discovery, Molecular Devices, about the company’s Organoid Innovation Center in San Jose, CA. The center is 180 sq. ft., within a larger wet lab area measuring 1,440 sq. ft., and was completed in April 2021.
Q: What was the need for this facility? Is it replacing an outdated existing facility or accommodating new research/ a new program?
A: Molecular Devices successfully partners with customers to advance their 3D biology research by incorporating laboratory systems that automate and scale organoid workflows. This approach of designing a fully integrated, end-to-end solution—which encompasses organoid development through to high-content imaging and screening—has answered challenges our customers routinely experience when moving to 3D biology.
The idea for the Organoid Innovation Center was borne in part from a unique collaboration of this kind with Cincinnati Children’s Center for Stem Cell and Organoid Medicine (CuSTOM). We began working with the organization in 2018 to design and build out an automated workflow for 3D cell culturing and organoid screening in support of their mission to use advances in developmental biology and stem cell technologies to revolutionize personalized medicine and improve patient care. During this time, it became clear that there was a broader, industry-wide need for a complete, integrated system that could automate full 3D workflows from beginning to end of the cell development and screening process.
Nearly every customer we consult with on 3D biology expresses a desire to work with more biologically-relevant samples—like organoids—but has trouble understanding what technology to invest in to ensure quality, repeatable results, or are deterred altogether by pain points around standard operating procedures when growing, culturing, imaging, and analyzing organoids. This is where the Organoid Innovation Center comes into play. As it stands, there aren’t many accessible, operational, off-the-shelf commercial systems that a lab manager or research organization can see and experience firsthand. The Organoid Innovation Center allows us to bring customers into the lab either physically, or remotely for those located anywhere in the world through sophisticated viewing technology. Either way, we’re able to demonstrate the 3D biology process in real time: from cell culturing, monitoring, and quality checks, all the way through to passaging, differentiation, and then organoid screening. This is a gamechanger for our customers that want to test automated 3D workflows for specific assays—or those looking to get into 3D biology but are not sure where to start.
Q: What kinds of sustainability initiatives have been included in the design plan?
A: The Center is located at our headquarters in San Jose, which is also a certified California Green Business as of 2018. The company is committed to sustainability and conserving resources, and we’ve worked diligently to cut greenhouse gas emissions and hazardous waste, while saving energy, water, fuel, and natural gas usage. The facility has LED lighting, low flow water fixtures, and meets the state’s Building Energy Efficiency requirements.
Q: Is there anything particularly unique or groundbreaking about your facility or the design plan?
A: Particularly unique about the system within the Organoid Innovation Center is its technical capability for intelligent, autonomous decision making throughout the workflow. With intuitive scheduling software, we’re able to mimic the manual steps a lab member would take for 3D cell culturing, allowing customers to truly experience what it’d be like to have the complete system in their laboratories, assisting their workflows.
For example, at various points in the process, a scientist would manually grab a plate, place it in a high-content imaging system, analyze the results, and decide what the next workflow step should be. For example, if there’s a confluency value of 60 percent or more, the scientist would put the plate into the next step of the workflow. However, if the value is 60 percent or less, the researcher might put it back into the incubator and wait for the confluency value to increase above the desired percentage. This system is designed to mimic those commands, read that plate automatically, and put it in the desired spot. With the Organoid Innovation Center’s fully functional system, we’re able to demonstrate automation for nearly every movement a scientist might make when creating 3D organoids from single cells.
This automation is also enabled by sophisticated instruments like the ImageXpress® Confocal HT.ai High-Content Imaging System which features a seven-channel laser light source with eight imaging channels to enable highly multiplexed assays while maintaining high throughput by using shortened exposure times. When paired with machine learning image analysis software, customers can extract features and recognize patterns from massive amounts of data that would otherwise be a very laborious, time-consuming process. This software also mimics what an expert scientist can do by determining multiple features within a cell or a plate well, and then interconnecting all of those features to determine drug potency, cell activity—or whatever target one might be looking for.
For flexibility, our team of in-house engineers and scientists designed the system to be extremely modular so each instrument in the workflow can be easily added or removed to fit the specific assay or screening a customer might need—without affecting functionality. If a customer doesn’t need a full liquid handler—or they’d prefer to insert a different instrument entirely—we can accommodate that.
Q: What sorts of challenges did you encounter during the design/build process, and how did you overcome them?
A: Molecular Devices has a full engineering team that designs and installs these fully integrated, automated systems for customers daily, such as the Cincinnati Children’s Center for Stem Cell and Organoid Medicine (CuSTOM) mentioned earlier. Developing the Organoid Innovation Center was second nature for us as we leveraged our experience and learnings, leaving little-to-no challenges in our path.
Q: If a similar facility or program were to look at your lab for inspiration, what do you think they will take away as an example of what they should also implement in their own lab?
A: This is the entire reason for the Organoid Innovation Center: to inspire customers, researchers, scientists, and lab managers to start on their path to 3D biology. There are so many different methods and technologies to leverage when approaching 3D biology—like organ-on-a-plate and organ-on-a-chip for example. It can be confusing to decide as a user where to begin and in which direction to go—especially if resources or funds are limited. Our Organoid Innovation Center is an entirely new way for customers to “try on” 3D biology, and we’re very proud to offer this capability.
Through expert knowledge and real-world testing, we can assess the most efficient and reliable way to invest in organoid technology that best meets any customer’s biology and research needs. With the Organoid Innovation Center, we’re removing the burden and helping uncover the best 3D biology solutions for our customers—ultimately speeding up research and discovery, leading to more personalized and reliable therapeutics.