Stem cell technology and biobanking are just two areas of the biotech sector where automation can make a big difference in the speed and quality of operations. The Automation Partnership (TAP), a provider of flexible, automated solutions for the life science industry, is in the process of extending its wide range of cell culture and storage packages.
TAP was founded in 1989 as the automation arm of the TTP Group. According to TAP’s CEO, Andy Morffew, Ph.D., its engineering products began to focus increasingly upon opportunities within the life science sector, a shift that led the company to become an independent trading subsidiary of TTP in 1995 and to become the group’s first spin-off in 1998.
Cell Culture and Storage
TAP’s first life science product was the Cellmate, a fully automated cell culture system that was first produced for Celltech’s manufacturing operations, and which has since been used in vaccine production. The latest version includes software to support validation if it is used in processes requiring 21 CFR Part 11 compliance.
Storage products such as the Haystack™ with its robot picker, barcoding, and database facilities; Haywagon, which includes a weighing facility; HomeBase, a narrow aisle store for sample libraries; and BasePlateXR, a multipurpose sample-preparation platform are also included in the company’s product holdings.
TAP is now headquartered at Royston, U.K., with a U.S. sales and support facility in Delaware. It remains a private company, with shares owned by employees from TTP Group, TAP, and the VC group, 3i. The company is profitable with a turnover of £21.6 million (for year ending March 2007).
Today, TAP continues to focus upon cell culture and storage. It was one of the first companies to meet the automation needs of the life science industry by setting up a design consortium within customer groups. Although TAP is basically an engineering company, its staff knows about the cell biology side of things and can address issues such as air flow and contamination.
TAP now has a range of seven products for automated cell culture. SelecT™ is a fully automated cell culture system for multiple (up to 183) cell lines grown in T-flasks and is capable of carrying out operations like capping/decapping, medium addition, pipetting, cell counting, and plating out onto 96-, 384- and 1,536-well plates.
Flexibility and Functionality
The availability of more compact robots has led to the development of a downsized version of the SelecT system called CompacT SelecT, for the medium-throughput lab in need of high-quality cells for assays. It plates out to 96- and 384-well plates.
The recently launched advanced plating module for this product automates media changes on microplates including a CO2 cell culture incubator as well as TAP’s SelFeeder liquid-handling system for plates. It allows changes of up to 10 different media and two wash solutions in standard and transport assay microplates, making it easy to rapidly generate and maintain different cell lines of consistently high quality, without manual intervention.
This flexible approach greatly improves the functionality of CompacT SelecT; it means scientists can use the advanced plating module to fully automate plate-based applications that require labor-intensive feeding regimes, including preparation and maintenance of transport assays, cell-based assays, and stem cells.
The Sonata™ is, according to the company, the first automated cell culture system for shake flasks, allowing the culture of cells in suspension as well as adherent cells. “Sonata is for bioprocess optimization,” explains Rosemary Drake, Ph.D., director of business development. “There is a large growth in new products like monoclonal antibodies, and Sonata takes the drudgery out of process development, otherwise it takes too long to find the best conditions. Sonata can take the place of the work of five or six people.”
Piccolo™ is a fully automated system for the rapid optimization of protein production in microbial and insect cells designed in a consortium that included Merck and GlaxoSmithKline. The system automates culture inoculation or infection, growth, harvest, lysis, and affinity purification, thereby cutting protein production time from months to days, Dr. Drake reports. It allows customers to find the best construct, best host strain, and culture conditions.
Cello™ is a new automated system for the culture of adherent and nonadherent mammalian cells in 6-, 24-, 96-, and 384-well plates for selection of optimal clones and cell lines. It automates operations from seeding through expansion and sub-cloning and thereby decreases the time for cell-line development.
Dr. Morffew says that there are many advantages that automation with the TAP family of cell culture systems can bring to a company or academic group. “There is always an easy business case to be made for the efficiency of operating 24/7 with automation,” he explains, “but there is also the consistency that comes with smoother movements.”
“For example, you can get better cells with our SelecT system than by manual methods. There is also a clear reduction in contamination that is often caused by people or labware.”
Many say there is a green-thumb side to cell culture, where some people are just better at it than others. Dr. Morffew says that automation can bring these skilled people up to super-user status, and average cell biologists will improve their cell culture performance. “Our services really do help people. With the compact version of SelecT that we have launched, you will get cells within three weeks.”
With the launch of the CompacT SelecT, TAP branched into benchtop systems and consumables. “We are broadening our customer base now. Originally, we just had the top ten pharmas. We still have them, but now we also have universities, CROs, and biotech companies,” says Dr. Morffew. “Increasingly, more companies want this technology.”
This situation reflects the growing importance of cell-based assays across the whole range of users and a corresponding increase in the need for high quality cells.
Additionally, there has been an increase in the use of frozen cells over fresh cells for screening. “If there is a change like this in the science, we must be there to offer a solution,” says Dr. Morffew.
Stem cell technology and regenerative medicine is another area where TAP is increasingly involved and another reason why it is beginning to supply smaller companies and universities with automated solutions. Undifferentiated stem cells are particularly challenging to work with and automation can help control their natural tendency to differentiate.
“We work to make our products the highest quality they can be,” concludes Dr. Morffew. “We continually improve our software and consumables. There is a lot of life left in our existing systems, but there are also many opportunities for us to innovate.”