£1.1m for stem cell robotics

The DTI has granted £1.1m for British scientists to develop robotics to automate stem cell research, meaning thousands of experiments could be conducted simultaneously.

The grant was awarded to a consortium led by Plasticell, a London-based biotechnology company which develops drugs to regenerate tissues of the body, to automate its Combicult research experiments.

The Plasticell consortium includes University College London (UCL) and the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC). The robotic equipment to be developed in the project will enable researchers to test the effects of thousands of different factors and combinations of factors, such as growth, nutrients, hormones, or physical conditions. These could affect how stem cells differentiate, or how they give rise to tissue cells like lung, heart, brain cells which can be used clinically. Plasticell calls this technology Combinatorial Cell Culture

Dr Yen Choo, Plasticell’s Chief Executive, said: ‘At the moment, experiments are done on a trial and error basis and since cell culture work is cumbersome, a scientist can only handle a few experiments at any one time. However, with our technology a scientist could carry out 250,000 experiments in parallel in a couple of weeks. To do this many stem cell differentiation experiments in the conventional way would take that scientist a few lifetimes.’

Plasticell will automate its research product CombiCult using industry-standard robotic equipment housed in sterile enclosures where tissue culture can take place. This will increase productivity by enabling experiments to run constantly in a contaminant-free environment. In addition, Plasticell will license the technique and allow the wider research community to benefit from this important technology.