Researchers invented robots that can generate mini-organs from human stem cells
Robots Generate Mini-Organs From Human Stem Cells

An automated robotic system has been invented by researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle to produce human mini-organs from actual human stem cells. The automated robotic system can massively produce organoids rapidly.

The system was tested in the production of kidney organoids, including models of polycystic kidney disease. Not only do the robots produce the mini-organs, but the robots were also programmed to analyze the organs that they produce.

Researchers invented robots that can generate mini-organs from human stem cells
Microwell plate containing kidney organoids, generated by liquid handling robots from human stem cells. The yellow boxed region is shown at higher magnification. Red, green, and yellow colors mark distinct segments of the kidney. Credit: Freedman Lab/UW Medicine

Benjamin Freedman, assistant professor of medicine, Division of Nephrology, at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said that the advance promises to greatly expand the use of mini-organs in basic research and drug discovery. The professor who initiated and led the study added that he and his team’s discovery is a new ‘secret weapon’ in humanity’s fight against the disease.

Freedman is also a scientist at the UW Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, as well as at the Kidney Research Institute, a collaboration between the Northwest Kidney Centers and UW Medicine.

Freedman discussed that the traditional way to grow cells for biomedical research is to culture them as flat, two-dimensional sheets, which are overly simplistic. Freedman added that researchers have been increasingly successful in growing stem cells into more complex, three-dimensional structures called mini-organs or organoids. These resemble rudimentary organs and in many ways behave similarly.

While these properties make organoids ideal for biomedical research, they also pose a challenge for mass production. The ability to mass produce organoids is the most exciting potential applications of the new robotic technology, according to the developers.

Researchers invented robots that can generate mini-organs from human stem cells
A bird’s eye view of a microwell plate containing kidney organoids, generated by liquid handling robots from human stem cells. Yellow boxed region is shown at higher magnification. Red, green, and yellow colors mark distinct segments of the kidney. Credit: Freedman Lab /UW Medicine

The Process:

The liquid-handling robots introduced the stem cells into plates that contained as many as 384 miniature wells each and then coaxed them to turn into kidney organoids over 21 days. Each little Microwell typically contained ten or more organoids, and each plate contained thousands of organoids. The robots could produce many plates in a fraction of the time.

Freedman’s study used a robotic system to automate the procedure for growing stem cells into organoids. It is the first ever successful automated manufacturer of organoids from pluripotent stem cells. That cell type is versatile and capable of becoming any type of organ.

Freedman said, “Ordinarily, just setting up an experiment of this magnitude would take a researcher all day, while the robot can do it in 20 minutes. On top of that, the robot doesn’t get tired and make mistakes. There’s no question. For repetitive, tedious tasks like this, robots do a better job than humans.”