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Automating Stem Cell Growth May Mean New Treatments

Posted on May 31, 2018


A new robotic system developed by the University of Washington-Seattle to help automate the creation of human mini-organs obtained from stem cells may revolutionize regenerative medicine research.

The capability to rapidly produce these mini-organs, also known as organoids, also could mean new medical treatments for illnesses such as diabetes and polycystic kidney disease, an inherited condition that causes the formation of cysts on the kidneys that cause kidney dysfunction.

Polycystic kidney disease affects one in 600 people around the world.

The research about the robotic system was published online in the journal Cell Stem Cell on May 17.

Till now, the conventional way to grow stem cells was by culturing them in a lab as a two-dimensional sheet. Recently, stem cell researchers have had success in culturing stem cells into three-dimensional structures known as organoids.

Organoids closely resemble organs and even act like organs in many cases. These two properties make organoids ideal for regenerative medical research, but they could not be mass produced.

Until now.

During their study, the UW researchers developed a robotic system that automates the culturing of stem cells into organoids using pluripotent stem cells.

Pluripotent stem cells are a type of adult stem cell that can develop into any organ.

“Stem cells have the ability to develop into different types of cells and tissues. They also have the ability to regenerate themselves without limitation, which means they are ideal for healing tissues damaged by illness,” said Dr. Joel Singer.

Singer is a New York physician who uses personal cells from fat tissue to treat patients for conditions including urologic diseases such as interstitial cystitis, also called painful bladder syndrome. Interstitial cystitis is a chronic condition that causes bladder pressure, bladder pain and sometimes pelvic pain.

According to the Interstitial Cystitis Association, the condition affects between 4 and 12 million Americans.

Creating Organoids

During the organoid-production process, robots placed pluripotent stem cells into plates containing up to 384 tiny wells per plate and then manipulated them into becoming kidney organoids over a three-week period.

At the end of the three weeks, each well had 10 or more kidney organoids, with each plate containing thousands.

The benefits of robotics not only include the ability to mass produce the organoids, but robots also eliminate the risk of human error and fatigue.

The UW researchers not only trained the robots to create kidney organoids, but also to process and analyze the new tissues. Working in conjunction with researchers at the University of Michigan Kidney Center, the UW scientists used a cutting-edge, automated process known as single-cell RNA sequencing to determine all the cell types found in the newly created organoids.

The sequencing allowed researchers to establish that the organoids closely resembled kidneys, but they also contained non-kidney cells previously not found in other kidney-organoid cultures.

The findings will aid the researchers in improving the process of developing the organoids to produce a better result.

The analysis of the organoids also led to a new way to expand the number of blood vessel cells in the organoids so they could function more like natural kidneys.

Another benefit of their research is the discovery of new drugs that could help to treat disease. During their study, the UW researchers created kidney organoids that had the genetic mutations of polycystic kidney disease. Then, they exposed these particular organoids to different factors and found that one, known as blebbistatin, caused a significant increase in the number and size of cysts in the organoids.

Blebbistatin blocks the protein myosin, which is believed to cause kidney tubules to expand and contract.

The discovery could mean improved treatment and prevention of the condition.

“The ability to grow new organoids could lead to significant advances in treating chronic health conditions,” Singer said.



UW Medicine Newsroom. Robots grow mini-organs from human stem cells. 17 May 2018.



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