Robots Are Growing Mini Human Organs From 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. Freedman Lab/UW Medicine

Welcome to the real Westworld. Scientists have designed an automated system that uses robots to create human mini-organs using stem cells.

But don't worry, giving robots the means to forge mini-organs won’t end in some reality-bending dystopia. Instead, the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle say their work could lead to advances in the field of biomedical science. In fact, they’ve already used their robotic-technique to gain insight into polycystic kidney disease, a common inherited disease.

“This is a new ‘secret weapon’ in our fight against disease,” Benjamin Freedman, a medical researcher at the UW Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine and the Kidney Research Institute, said in a statement.

Mini-organs, or organoids as scientists call them, could save your life someday. They are basically just small samples of specialized tissue that resemble a simplified version of an organ. Scientists are only able to pull off this incredible feat through the power of pluripotent stem cells, an especially handy undifferentiated cell that can become many different cell types in the body, such as kidney cells for example. Although not capable of performing the complex functions of an actual organ, they are a good subject for biomedical researchers to test out new drugs on or to see the effects of a disease.

However, one problem with these mini-organs is that they are really tough to mass produce. Creating them is difficult because they are complex three-dimensional structures that can’t simply be grown in a petri-dish and left to their own devices. By using a robotic system, the whole process is automated and carried out with pinpoint precision.

As reported in the journal Cell Stem Cell, the new system uses liquid-handling robots to introduce the stem cells into nearly 400 miniature wells. Over just three weeks, the automated computer system watches over the stem cells as they grow and “coaxes” them to form into a kidney organoid.

“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 added. "There's no question. For repetitive, tedious tasks like this, robots do a better job than humans."

The research didn’t stop there, however. They then used this incredible new technique to search for drugs that could affect disease. In one of these experiments, they produced organoids with mutations that cause polycystic kidney disease and then exposed them to a number of substances. They discovered that a compound known as blebbistatin led to a significant increase in the number and size of cysts.

"This was unexpected,” Freedman added.

"It's definitely a pathway we will be looking at.”

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