Citing a cell-culture bottleneck in high-throughput cell-based screening, The Automation Partnership of Royston, UK, announced last week that it has added an “enabling imaging technology” to Cello, its platform for automated cell culture for well plates.
The imaging technology is the MIAS-2 high-throughput fluorescence microscopy reader and software, and is manufactured by MAIA Scientific, of Geel, Belgium, a wholly owned subsidiary of Harvard Bioscience.
According to TAP representatives, the company will now market Cello with the MIAS-2 imaging system to provide its customers with a more complete platform than previously available.
“We will be providing this reader on our system, and it will be the only [one],” said Tim Ward, head of TAP’s cell culture team. “They’re optimizing their software so it suits the requirements we have within our platform. Ultimately we will be selling the complete system with support from MAIA to implement it in labs.”
TAP, which was founded in 1988, has built its business on providing automation for life sciences research areas such as genotyping, protein crystallography, and high-throughput screening. According to Ward, TAP has also provided several solutions for automating cell culture, but scientists’ needs in this area have evolved quickly over the past several years as more labs move towards high-throughput well-plate screening with mammalian and other cells.
“As part of [our development] process, we identified additional bottlenecks, particularly in the drug discovery area around creating really effective cell lines,” Ward said. “It’s a very time-consuming process, either done internally or outsourced to companies that specialize in that task. And with newer targets, the sensitivity [of the assay] may require differently optimized cell lines, which involves even more work.”
The company also became aware that automated cell culture for well plates was critical when “cell lines are used for protein production, particularly in areas such as monoclonal antibodies, where choosing the appropriate hybridoma cell line is key,” Ward said.
So TAP collaborated with three of its major existing customers to create a new automated platform, Cello, for culturing multiple cell lines in parallel. Ward chose not to identify the customers, but said “they’re all in the pharma sector. One is a top pharma, one is a leading biotech company, and one sort of moves across biotech and pharma, so there’s a nice mixture that represents different requirements.”
Apparently one of those requirements was a way to image and analyze the cells, which is why TAP initiated the collaboration with MAIA. The company is being tight-lipped about the exact functionality the MIAS-2 microscope system will provide, mainly due to “patent issues,” Ward said. But he did call the instrument an “enabling technology.”
“The function it’s performing is to measure cells in microplates,” Ward said, “to basically give an indication of the number of cells, the level of confluence of the cells in a particular well, and also to give an indication of the nature of the way cells are growing within the well, to assess whether we have a single clone … or whether there’s the possibility that there are multiple clones and we don’t have a pure culture of one cell.”
The MIAS-2 is MAIA Scientific’s flagship product. According to MAIA’s president, Johan Geysen, it is specifically designed for high-throughput imaging at the cellular level or at the level of tissue, tissue section, or small animal models (mostly embryonic). It combines five brightfield and as many as eight fluorescence imaging modes, as well as the eaZYX automation and image analysis software.
Although the MIAS-2 is not new to cell biology research, MAIA is a relatively new company. Its roots lie in the May 2001 acquisition of Union Biometrica by Harvard Bioscience. US-based Union Biometrica had a Belgian office, which in 2002, following the acquisition, officially became its European branch. Most recently, in January of this year, Harvard Bioscience split off the microscopy aspect of Union Biometrica into MAIA.
“[The imaging system] formally became known as the MIAS product line when we started the company in Europe,” said Geysen. “But there is a history of at least 15 years of development. The roots of the technology date back within Johnson & Johnson’s [Belgian branch],” he said. “We have actually gone through a number of developments within J&J in various fields where microscopy was applied: Histopathology, electromicroscopy, cell physiology, cell biology, histology, and cell-based screening, even before the term was invented,” Geysen added.
That system, Geysen said, was spun out of J&J in 2002, when Union Biometrica’s European branch was incorporated in Belgium. J&J remains one of the biggest customers of the platform, he added.
Ward said he though that the system’s automation capability was its most attractive quality. “We have some fairly specific needs for a highly reliable system that will give high-quality results with minimal or zero operator interaction while doing it consistently over a long period of time,” he said. “Of all the [systems] we looked at, MAIA’s was the best one from that perspective.”
When asked to identify other companies whose imaging platforms TAP considered, Ward declined. “We have relationships with other companies in that area for some of our other products,” he said. “It probably wouldn’t be fair to comment on other providers.”
Although a price has not yet been set, and there is no time table as to the official release of the microscopy-enabled Cello system, the three biotech and pharma companies that collaborated on its development will be the first to test it out in everyday use.
“They’re getting early access to this particular piece of technology, which gives them a business advantage” Ward said. “And it obviously gives us a really nice mechanism to make sure we’re producing a product that is valuable for the application areas we are targeting.”