Robot vision system picks stem cells

Coupling a robot with machine vision cameras from AVT and laboratory automation software has resulted in a system that automates the picking of stem cells.

Robot vision system picks stem cells

Under certain conditions, stem cells can be induced to become other types of cell such as blood or muscle cells though a process known as differentiation. Because of this, scientists and researchers can use them to regenerate diseased or damaged tissue.

To grow colonies of stem cells, single stem cells are extracted from tissue and transferred onto a Petri dish that contains a nutrient. This allows the cells to undergo numerous cycles of cell division and appear as tightly knit colonies, less than 1 mm across, that adhere to the bottom of the Petri dish. Each colony consists of identical stem cells.

As long as the stem cell colonies are grown under appropriate conditions, they remain undifferentiated. If two colonies grow together, such that they touch, it is not possible to pick a pure line of stem cells. These groups (resembling a figure of eight) and colonies that that have started to differentiate (that can be seen by changes in their shape) must not be selected for picking.
Only undifferentiated pure colonies of stem cells must be picked from the Petri dishes and transferred individually into a microtiter plate - a flat plate with 96 wells that act as small test tubes. Here, the stem cells can be further grown or processed to differentiate into specific cell types desired by the researchers.

In the past, the process of identifying undifferentiated stems cells on Petri dishes was carried out manually by trained operators who identified the cells under a microscope. However, there was a lack of consistency between the individuals who picked the cells from the plates and the chance that and the potential that operators might damage the colonies, pick the wrong ones, or pick multiple colonies.

Robot vision with AVT camera
To automate this process, engineers at paa (Peak Analysis & Automation, Farnborough, UK) in conjunction with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute (Hinxton, UK) have developed a vision-based robotic system called pixcell for the detection, isolation and picking of stem cell colonies from Petri dishes. After picking, the robotic system transfers the cells to wells in microtiter plates where they can be treated to create specific cell types.

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