We now have robots that can use stem cells to grow human mini-organs, also known as organoids, GeekWire reports. The noble purpose behind this impressive feat of technology is saving human lives by providing lab-grown biological material for the study of a host of diseases, as well as drug delivery mechanisms to treat these illnesses.
Traditional biomedical experiments of this kind usually rely on sheets of organ tissue that are engineered from human stem cells. However, because these sheets are two-dimensional, they can't reflect the entire structure of the organ that is being grown in the lab.
This is why scientists at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle came up with the brilliant idea of devising a robotic system that could grow complex 3D organoids to facilitate medical research.
This ingenious solution could help speed up the process of growing mini-organs in the lab and diversify their medical applications.
Benjamin Freedman, from the university's Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, hails the newly-developed robotic system as a literal lifesaver.
"This is a new 'secret weapon' in our fight against disease."The special thing about their robotic system, and its biggest advantage over previous projects that managed to grow organoids from adult stem cells, is that this technique is able to use pluripotent stem cells — a first in biomedical technology.
Because this kind of stem cells is more versatile and can grow into any type of organ, the possibilities are limitless, notes the university in a news release.So far, the UW researchers focused solely on kidney organoids because their primary goal is to study polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a genetic condition that affects around 600,000 Americans and is, according to the National Kidney Foundation, the fourth leading cause of kidney failure.
In a study published yesterday in the journal Cell Stem Cell, the UW team details how the new robotic system works and notes that their technique can yield thousands of mini-organs for research in just one experiment.
This staggering performance is achieved with the help of liquid-handling robots that place stem cells into plates of up to 384 microwells each. Over the course of 21 days, each of these miniature wells can grow 10 or more organoids.
The use of robots allows researchers to produce a large number of plates in record time, "with a speed that would have impressed Henry Ford's car assembly line," states UW.
"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 pointed out.In addition, the robotic system uses a cell identification technique known as single-cell RNA sequencing, which allows it to screen the organoids it produces and offers the possibility of tweaking the cell production technique.
"The value of this high-throughput platform is that we can now alter our procedure at any point, in many different ways, and quickly see which of these changes produces a better result," Freedman said.
Breakthrough In The Study Of Polycystic Kidney Disease
The new robotic system has already led to an incredible discovery about polycystic kidney disease, UW revealed in the news release.
To better understand how this genetic condition develops, the team used the robots to manufacture kidney organoids that have PKD and uncovered that the formation of these cysts is largely influenced by how kidney cells interact with their microenvironment.
In the video below, Freedman, who is also affiliated with the university's Kidney Research Institute, explains that the new technique could be used to the alter the progress of PKD.
"We found that the cyst formation is not just something that depends on the cells but really depends on what's around the cells and the interaction of those cells with their microenvironment," he says.
"If we can change the way they interact or what they experience outside of the cell we can actually change the course of the disease," Freedman points out.