Skip to main content
Move the World.
Robots Are Mass Producing Mini-Organs
Bird's eye view of a microwell plate containing kidney organoids, generated by liquid handling robots from human stem cells. Yellow boxed region is shown at higher magnification. Red, green, and yellow colors mark distinct segments of the kidney. Credit: Freedman Lab/UW Medicine

One of the most remarkable advances in regenerative medicine has been the development of "mini-organs"— tiny versions of, say, a patient's lungs or intestines—that are grown in a lab using stem cells. These "organoids" can be used to see how an individual person will respond to different drugs, even before they're treated. Eventually, they could be transplanted to help repair tissue. But they are expensive and time-consuming to make. Now, researchers have shown that a robotic system can both mass produce mini-organs and automatically test the results to make sure they're developing into the right kind of cells. It has huge potential to scale up the technology, making the organoids more true-to-life and more affordable.

Medicine, For You: Last year, scientists in the Netherlands announced they had developed personalized mini-intestines to test potential drugs for cystic fibrosis (CF) patients. CF damages many different organs, and it can be caused by thousands of different mutations that slightly alter the disease and how it responds to drugs, which makes treatment expensive and difficult. Over 1,500 Dutch patients had tiny versions of their guts grown from adult stem cells into 3D structures, resulting in dozens of one-millimeter scale models of their own intestines. This allowed doctors to test drugs to see how well they worked for an individual, leading to better, faster, and more personalized treatments.

Saving Lives, Saving Money: Some new CF drugs cost up to $236,000 per year, and, because the disease varies so much, governments and insurance companies have refused to pay for them without proof that they are likely to work for a specific patient. By growing mini-organs from the participants in the drug's clinical trial, Dutch doctors were able to prove that their organoids correctly predicted whether a real person would respond to the medicine. Then they began testing other patients' mini-guts and rapidly found the best candidates for the drug, convincing the medical bureaucracies to shell out for their treatment.

Tiny Organs, Huge Potential: There are limitless applications of this technique. Any drug, for any disease, affecting any organ could theoretically be shrunk down and subjected to a battery of tests in a Petri dish before being pumped into a sick person. We could grow copies of cancer patients' tumors to see which drugs work best for their specific mutations. Drug companies could start testing on human organoids much earlier, making new discoveries and helping understand what medicine works best for each type of person and each version of a disease. It's even possible that we could eventually grow and transplant perfectly matched tissue to repair organ damage. (Less medically related, but still cool: other scientists are planning to grow mini Neanderthal brains from ancient DNA to see how our evolutionary cousins might have differed from Homo sapiens.)

Ugh, Progress Is So Much Work: But growing mini-organs and mini-tumors is time consuming and expensive—on average a few thousand dollars per patient. And improvements come slowly: culturing stem cells, seeding new organoids, growing them, and finally testing and analyzing them is a long, tedious, and labor-intensive process. Each modification at any point in the process means the whole thing has to be started over and the results collected, analyzed, and compared again.

Please, Robots, Take This Job! Fortunately, we have robots for mindless, repetitive tasks. Researchers at the University of Washington recently showed that an automated robot could mass produce thousands of mini-kidneys in a fraction of the time. They estimate that the robot can do in 20 minutes what would take a human all day. Rather than adult stem cells, which can only grow into a certain kind of organ, their technique uses pluripotent stem cells, which have been reverse engineered to be able to grow into any kind of tissue, given the right environment. This means their robotic assembly line could potentially be used for growing any mini-organ. Even better, their system can automatically sequence the organoids' RNA to see if they're all growing into the right kind of cells.

Using this mass production technique, scientists were able to increase the amount of blood vessels in their mini-kidneys to make them more realistic, and they were able to search for new drugs by testing a bunch of different drugs on kidneys grown with a genetic disorder. If robots can scale up this technique for drug testing, personalized treatment, and regenerative therapy, I for one welcome our new robot overlords.

Up Next

Mars
Icelandic Rocks Hold Clues to Mars’ Ancient Climate
Mars climate
Mars
Icelandic Rocks Hold Clues to Mars’ Ancient Climate
Water once flowed on Mars. But was ancient Mars’s climate hot and wet, or dry and glacial? Iceland may hold the answer.

Water once flowed on Mars. But was ancient Mars’s climate hot and wet, or dry and glacial? Iceland may hold the answer.

Clean Energy
Open-Sourcing the Blueprints for a Nuclear Power Plant
nuclear power plant
Clean Energy
Open-Sourcing the Blueprints for a Nuclear Power Plant
The Energy Impact Center has open-sourced nuclear power plant blueprints in an attempt to encourage the adoption of eco-friendly nuclear energy.

The Energy Impact Center has open-sourced nuclear power plant blueprints in an attempt to encourage the adoption of eco-friendly nuclear energy.

Dope Science
Take a Trip to Johns Hopkins' New Psychedelic Research Center
Take a Trip to Johns Hopkins' New Psychedelic Research Center
Dope Science
Take a Trip to Johns Hopkins' New Psychedelic Research Center
Johns Hopkins is throwing its considerable clout behind the fast-growing field of psychedelic research, pouring $17 million into a research center to study the hallucinogenic drugs.

Johns Hopkins is throwing its considerable clout behind the fast-growing field of psychedelic research, pouring $17 million into a research center to study the hallucinogenic drugs.

Superhuman
Electric Skin Gives Sensation Back to Amputees
Electric Skin Gives Sensation Back to Amputees
Watch Now
Superhuman
Electric Skin Gives Sensation Back to Amputees
Touch is a sensation that connects us all. This scientist created electronic skin that lets people with prosthetic limbs feel.
Watch Now

For amputees, the sensation of a ‘phantom limb’ can be a terrible or disorienting experience -- feeling a hand, arm or leg that isn’t there anymore. But researchers at Johns Hopkins have recognized that these sensations are a clue, and they’re using it to restore the sense of touch.

What Is Cystic Fibrosis—And What Is It Like?
What Is Cystic Fibrosis—And What Is It Like?
What Is Cystic Fibrosis—And What Is It Like?
What you need to know about this genetic disease, explained by someone who knows it inside and out.
By Ella Balasa

What you need to know about this genetic disease, explained by someone who knows it inside and out.

This Week in Ideas: Using Drones for Medicine, Fighting Zika, Re-Imagining Passwords
This Week in Ideas: Using Drones for Medicine, Fighting Zika, Re-Imagining Passwords
This Week in Ideas: Using Drones for Medicine, Fighting Zika, Re-Imagining Passwords
Reimagining how we get medicine to people, using genetically modified mosquitoes to fight Zika, and selfies as...
By Mike Riggs

Reimagining how we get medicine to people, using genetically modified mosquitoes to fight Zika, and selfies as passwords. These are the stories that got us talking.

Self-Driving Cars are Finally Here. Sort Of.
Self-Driving Cars are Finally Here. Sort Of.
Self-Driving Cars are Finally Here. Sort Of.
Uber rolled out self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, but they're not totally autonomous. Yet. Under Pennsylvania law,...
By Mike Riggs

Uber rolled out self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, but they're not totally autonomous. Yet. Under Pennsylvania law, every car still needs an operator.