A French team of scientists has for the first time used a robot to automate the production of retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells.

The technique promises to aid the large-scale production of RPE cells, which could help revolutionize the treatment of a leading cause of blindness.

“If you look in the literature, you can find trials of automating treatments, but it’s the first time—to my knowledge—that this protocol has been transferred onto a robot and RPE cells obtained without touching the cells,” explained Christelle Monville, PhD, from the I-Stem laboratory founded by the French Muscular Dystrophy Association (AFM-Téléthon).

Typically, RPE cells are produced from human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) by a long and laborious manual laboratory process. According to Monville, this involves manually manipulating hPSC cells, which can differentiate into any cell type, under a microscope.

However, this technique is not suitable for the large-scale production of RPE cells to treat conditions, such as Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), which affects more than 150 million people worldwide.

In a paper in Nature Scientific Reports earlier this year, Monville and her colleagues developed a protocol where the hPSC cells were exposed to three different cytokines in sequence. This protocol was then transferred to a cell culture robot to help upscale the production process.

CompacT SelecT platform
The CompacT SelecT platform. [Christelle Monville]
“It allows us to increase the yield of RPE cells we could obtain, and allowed us to use automatic treatments, instead of manual dissections,” she said. According to the paper, the quality was similar to the nonautomated method.

The group developed the protocol after producing RPE cells manually for a clinical trial with patients with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disease. “It’s a very rare genetic disease, so it’s a trial for only 12 patients, but we wanted to automate the process for scaling up the cells as they could benefit AMD patients,” she said.

Another benefit of using automation, she explained, is reproducibility and a more robust process for cell production. “If you go for more patients, you need robots to give a reproducible protocol.”

The clinical trial with RPE patients began in September and was wholly funded by AFM-Téléthon, a charitable organization.

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