Cell Culture Automation: Critical for Cell
Therapies and Drug Development
A guide to automated liquid handling systems for the high-growth cell culture market
Stem cell research has been breaking round in new application areas over the past few years, and it’s poised for even greater growth as more companies
and organizations realize the potential. In the
next decade, cell-based therapies will become
increasingly common for cancer, immunological
disorders, cardiac failure and other
According to BCC Research, the global market for stem cells was $3.8 billion in 2011 and
could reach $6.6 billion in 2016, reflecting a five-year compound annual growth rate of 11.7%.
Many laboratories, however, still use manual
cell culture processes that are time consuming,
labor intensive and prone to error, creating a
bottleneck for commercialization and potentially life-saving treatments. For these therapies
to become widely used, live cell-based production methods must be standardized and automated to provide large numbers of high-quality
cells and enable large-scale clinical trials and
The cell-based assay segment of laboratory
automation currently accounts for approx-
imately 25% of automated systems used for
liquid handling robotics. Within this segment,
the most common applications for cell culture
automation include cell line development for
monoclonal antibodies (mAb), cell production,
induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) research,
cryobanking, cell-based assays and cellular
expression. All of these applications require rou-
tine cell maintenance and culture.
To meet this demand, equipment manufacturers have developed fully automated, end-to-end systems with a wide range of options and
accessories. Adapting a bench protocol to automation takes effort and is no small undertaking.
Most laboratories would benefit significantly
from consulting an expert to help guide the
process. When choosing a system, the many
laboratories that have already made the switch
found that the most critical factors are ease of
use, standardization, flexibility, throughput and
For cells to grow in culture, automated systems
must maintain very tight control over multiple
growth parameters. For example, they must
be able to maintain a sterile and comfortable
environment, ensure appropriate nutrients
and maintain cell numbers and confluence.
When evaluating platforms, laboratories must
consider the combination of equipment that
controls these parameters, including their
interaction with each other, to form a cohesive
Typical system components
Central to any automated cell culture system is
the liquid handler, which must perform a range
of tasks, including interfacing with equipment
such as incubators and imagers. It’s crucial that
laboratories evaluate the mode of pipetting
and sterility associated with this process, and
investigate how the liquid handler maintains
and moves cells during plating, passaging and
harvesting. One system particularly well suit-
ed to cell culture automation is the Microlab
S TAR workstation by Hamilton Robotics. This
system, designed after spending time in labora-
tories with customers, makes it easy to perform
the many complicated steps of cell culturing.
Also critical to choosing a cell culture automated
system is the mode of pipetting. Using high-performance air-displacement technology is ideal.
Systems that use liquids and self-contained liquid
channels pose a greater risk for contamination.
It’s also important to evaluate the dynamic
pipetting range for assay flexibility, as well as the
disposable tip attachment technology to ensure
the best tip seal.
Cell culture automation requires sophisticated operating and data tracking capabilities,
and a platform’s software can severely limit or
dramatically enhance its capabilities. When
evaluating automated platforms, laboratories
should make sure that the software enables users
to program scheduled workflows and to select
cell culture plates for particular processes, such
as cell plating or adding growth factors. The best
systems have software that provides maximum
traceability, including a full “plate trail” listing
all steps that each plate has undergone.
A standard liquid handler needs a variety of
additional components to plate cells, exchange
media and passage and harvest cells.
Media fill module can deliver warmed media to
the pipetting workspace.
The Hamilton STAR workstation
is designed for cell culture and maintenance.
Images: Hamilton Robotics