Last updated: 02-14-2022

Robots Could Spur Use of Stem Cells in the Laboratory and Clinic


Human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) hold great promise for treating many currently untreatable diseases. Scientists can turn them into brain, liver, heart and other types of cells that could mend injured or unhealthy ones. However, the processes for culturing and differentiating hiPSCs into other kinds of cells take a lot of time and resources, limiting their potential use.

To speed the use of hiPSCs in research and medicine, NCATS scientists looked to robots. They used the robots to automate many of the steps for making the large amounts of high-quality hiPSCs needed for experiments. The results appear in Stem Cell Reports.

“Stem cells have tremendous translational potential but are challenging to work with,” said Ilyas Singeç, M.D., Ph.D., director of the NCATS Stem Cell Translation Laboratory. “We wanted to show that it is possible to use automation to make the biomanufacturing process reproducible, scalable and standardized. Using automation this way will change how we utilize stem cells, not just as a research tool, but as a platform for future cell therapies.”

Pluripotent stem cells have many possible uses. NCATS scientists, for example, use them to study the effects of drugs on cell and tissue models of diseases. Other researchers are examining the use of stem cells to treat diseases, such as diabetes, or to repair injured tissue.

“Culturing stem cells in the laboratory is time consuming and labor intensive," Singeç said. “Typically, laboratories can only grow a handful of different stem cell lines at the same time. With this system, we can culture 90 cell lines at once. This brings stem cells closer to clinical use.” In cell lines, a specific type of cell reproduces again and again, providing a consistent supply of the same cell.

Using robotic cell platforms for culturing and differentiating stem cells can help us overcome current bottlenecks in regenerative medicine.

The researchers compared the use of robots to more traditional techniques done by hand, which can take weeks or even months. They showed that the robotic methods could coax stem cells to become functional nerve cells, heart cells and liver cells that acted similarly to those made through manual methods. The heart cells could beat, and the nerve cells sent out electrochemical signals.

NCATS scientist and first author Carlos Tristan, Ph.D., said, “Using robotic cell platforms for culturing and differentiating stem cells can help us overcome current bottlenecks in regenerative medicine,” which focuses on healing or replacing tissues and organs damaged from aging, disease or injury.

Watch this video to learn more about how NCATS’ stem cell research efforts will help bring more treatments to all people more quickly.


Image Caption:
Pinar Ormanoglu cultures cells using a robotic system in NCATS’ Stem Cell Translation Laboratory. (Daniel Soñé Photography, LLC)