Lab Canada

Automation improves tissue engineering

Artificial skin is being produced automatically in a lab in Germany, with the production enabled by tissue engineering. Previously, production was only possible only using expensive manual methods in specialized laboratories.

Poorly healing wounds, broken cartilage, strokes, Parkinson’s disease – in future, these problems and many other diseases will be helped by regenerative medicine. By using tissue engineering and stem cells, scientists have the goal of enabling doctors to restore dysfunctional cells, tissue and organs.

Artificial skin for use in transplants or to verify the safety of the active ingredients of drugs, cosmetics and chemicals is a rare commodity. It is currently produced manually on a laboratory scale, and cultivation takes six weeks. The production volume is therefore limited to 2,000 pieces of skin per month, each one only a square centimetre in size.

At a lab in Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, automation technology supplier Festo has helped to marry process automation with skin cultivation. The company’s automation specialists recently helped the lab change its systems to achieve faster skin cell production.

Man-machine interface

The new BioPoLiS organic production laboratory at the Fraunhofer IPA is home to what it says is the only facility in the world for the fully automatic in vitro production of up to 5,000 human skin models a month. The plant reflects the importance of bio-production, a combination of biology and automation technology. The knowledge of biologists and engineers has come together in the fields of laboratory automation, process automation and liquid handling.

This interdisciplinary collaboration has led to an unprecedented degree of automation in tissue engineering. The seamless automation of all process steps has made it possible to introduce technological and economic criteria such as reproducible quality and throughput and cost optimization to skin model production.

Automation technology at work

The factory is designed to produce approximately 5,000 postage-stamp-sized skin models each month. It is very important for biological requirements to be met with regard to the sterility of all processes and the handling of cells. In the multi-step process, the skin samples are first sterilized, transported by robots into the machine, crushed, isolated and induced to grow. The artificial skin is ready after three weeks.

A particularly noteworthy feature is the continuous process chain. A single production line is used to handle cell extraction, cell proliferation, the cultivation of a three-dimensional tissue structure and cryonic preservation of skin models. Each process step is conducted without interrupting any of the others.

More than 100 components from Festo are integrated into the process. The primary area in which they are used is in the cell extraction process step. The installation’s entire pneumatic system is based on Festo components, ranging from the preparation of compressed air to the points at which the air is used. The process also includes many Festo motion axes. All components installed in the production room are of “clean room” specification. A decapper for unscrewing lids is installed as a complete system.

Looking ahead

The scientists involved in the project are not content merely to produce skin. They say they plan to develop the technology further in the next two years to the point where other types of tissue, such as cartilage, can also be produced automatically.

This article originally ran in the February 2012 issue of Lab Product News.