Research

An automated system that uses robots has been designed to rapidly produce human mini-organs derived from stem cells. Researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle developed the new system. 

The advance promises to greatly expand the use of mini-organs in basic research and drug discovery, according to Benjamin Freedman (Division of Nephrology) who led the research effort.

"This is a new 'secret weapon' in our fight against disease," said Freedman, who is a scientist at the UW Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, as well as at the Kidney Research Institute, a collaboration between the Northwest Kidney Centers and UW Medicine.

The traditional way to grow cells for biomedical research, Freedman explained, is to culture them as flat, two-dimensional sheets, which are overly simplistic. In recent years, researchers have been increasingly successful in growing stem cells into more complex, three-dimensional structures called mini-organs or organoids.

Microwell plate containing kidney organoids. Freedman Lab.
Bird's eye view of a microwell plate containing kidney organoids, generated by liquid handling robots from human stem cells. Source: Freedman Lab.

These resemble rudimentary organs and in many ways behave similarly. While these properties make organoids ideal for biomedical research, they also pose a challenge for mass production. The ability to mass produce organoids is the most exciting potential applications of the new robotic technology, according to the developers.

In the new study, the researchers used a robotic system to automate the procedure for growing stem cells into organoids.

Although similar approaches have been successful with adult stem cells, this is the first report of successfully automating the manufacture of organoids from pluripotent stem cells. That cell type is versatile and capable of becoming any type of organ.

In this process, the liquid-handling robots introduced the stem cells into plates that contained as many as 384 miniature wells each, and then coaxed them to turn into kidney organoids over 21 days. Each little microwell typically contained ten or more organoids, and each plate contained thousands of organoids. With a speed that would have impressed Henry Ford's car assembly line, the robots could produce many plates in a fraction of the time.

"Ordinarily, just setting up an experiment of this magnitude would take a researcher all day, while the robot can do it in 20 minutes," said Freedman. "On top of that, the robot doesn't get tired and make mistakes," he added. "There's no question. For repetitive, tedious tasks like this, robots do a better job than humans."

report describing the new technique has been published online in the journal Cell Stem Cell

Read the full story at: UW Medicine Newsroom