Since the dawn of stem cell research, beginning with the isolation of stem cells from mouse embryos in 1981 and further gaining momentum with the isolation of human embryonic stem cells (hESC) in 1998, the field has presented both huge potential and extraordinary challenges. Stem cells can be utilized in many ways in both basic and clinical research and may eventually be used therapeutically to treat a variety of diseases including Parkinson’s disease, cancer, diabetes, and spinal cord injuries. There are, however, many technical hurdles that must be overcome before the promise of stem cell research can be realized.
For example, scientists must exhibit exquisite control over stem cell culture in order to ensure that the cells proliferate extensively and differentiate reliably into the desired cell types. The optimization of the cell culture system, including such steps as standardizing the physiochemical environment and removing variability, will be critical in advancing stem cell technology as such factors can impact cell viability dramatically. Furthermore, the ability to offer security for the cultured cells and complete documentation of the experimental process is essential for therapeutic implementation.
While optimization of cell culture protocols is especially important for stem cells, particularly hESCs, the same can be said for any cell type that is rare, expensive, or sensitive, including embryos.
Perfecting cell culture conditions, however, is far from a trivial task. Often a large number of samples are required, making the task difficult or impossible without automation. Additionally, it is important to keep the environmental conditions as constant as possible, necessitating that human handling be kept to a minimum.
New technology, realized in Nikon Instruments’ (www.nikoninstruments.com) BioStation CT, has become available that allows cell cultures to be observed over time while maintaining them in their optimal environment. Additionally, the integrated robotics system manipulates the cells completely within this environment, while software and a terabyte server keep both the data and the cell cultures secure. This technology was used to monitor hES cells and mouse embryos as well as to measure growth rates in cultured cell lines.