99 problems in cell research – manual handling is number one

When you think of a biologist you probably picture someone pipetting in a lab growing organisms out of a Petri dish. Companies have made fortunes selling glassware, plasticware, and the myriad of equipment like incubators, centrifuges, laminar flow hoods, needed to run a cell culture lab. Today, you’ll be hard-pressed to equip a basic biology lab for less than $500k.

But despite modern day lab equipment’s increasingly clean, futuristic lines and connected capabilities, highly skilled individuals remain an indispensable workforce in the lab. This workforce has a high monetary and human cost- biologists need to carefully orchestrate every movement to safeguard sterility while hunched over a BSC for long hours, saying goodbye to their weekends and bank holidays.

Beyond costs and inconvenience, manual handling’s fundamental issue is the variability that it generates. Operators doing the exact same experiment have demonstrated variability in their results, and even the same operator can struggle to get their experiments to repeat. You might be familiar with the old ‘it’s biology- cells are capricious’ argument, but looking at the process you can’t totally blame the cells.

James Kusena, VP of Bioprocessing and Applications at MFX explains; “ Every single manual operation (in cell culture) can add variability; how fast you pipette, where you place the pipette in the dish, the time difference between the first and last well being filled, where things are placed in the incubator, how you agitate the dish, and last but not least, how you measure your data (cell counts, flow panels etc). And that’s before you factor in the occasional (but inevitable) mistake – we are all human after all!”

Might automated cell culture systems be the answer then? Current fully automated systems for process development cost the same as a full lab to buy (and cost an arm and a leg to run). They often lack versatility and user-friendliness, so you end up running most things manually anyway while the automated system sits idle. Well plate automation systems can be useful if you’re not ready to scale, but when you do, you’ll need to prepare for years of pain transferring your process to larger vessels. Investing in a robotic arm helps automate some of the cell culture process, but in the grand scheme of things it’s like inventing a mechanical horse to pull a chariot instead of inventing an automobile.

In our opinion, there is gap in research for a low-volume, fully automated, scalable, and affordable cell culture system.