The Automation of Tissue Engineering is Underway

Not all tissue structures need to be tailored to the patient - indeed, most of the present tissue engineering industry is in fact directly serving the research and development community rather than clinics. Engineered tissue is used for a broad range of testing, for example, and many life science research programs can progress more effectively with access to tissue structures rather than cells in a petri dish. As costs fall, that becomes an ever more practical alternative, meaning that research becomes more efficient and faster. Behind these falling costs lies a world of automation and infrastructure, leading towards assembly lines that produce pieces of living tissue for use in research and medical development:

Artificial skin for use in transplants or to verify the safety of the active ingredients of drugs, cosmetics and chemicals is a rare commodity. It is currently produced manually on a laboratory scale, and cultivation takes six weeks. The production volume is therefore limited to 2,000 pieces of skin per month, each one only a square centimetre in size. At a lab in Germany's Fraunhofer Institute, automation technology supplier Festo has helped to marry process automation with skin cultivation. The company's automation specialists recently helped the lab change its systems to achieve faster skin cell production

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The new BioPoLiS organic production laboratory at the Fraunhofer IPA is home to what it says is the only facility in the world for the fully automatic in vitro production of up to 5,000 human skin models a month. The plant reflects the importance of bio-production, a combination of biology and automation technology. ... A particularly noteworthy feature is the continuous process chain. A single production line is used to handle cell extraction, cell proliferation, the cultivation of a three-dimensional tissue structure and cryonic preservation of skin models. Each process step is conducted without interrupting any of the others.

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The scientists involved in the project are not content merely to produce skin. They say they plan to develop the technology further in the next two years to the point where other types of tissue, such as cartilage, can also be produced automatically.

Tissue is machinery, and we humans have accumulated a great deal of experience in how to build large amounts of homogeneous, quality-controlled machinery in a short period of time. So there is every reason to think that mass production of tissue structures for research and regenerative medicine will result in industrial processes that have much in common with the automated assembly lines that produce appliances or cars. As demand increases, and especially if therapies that use standardized tissues rather than patient-specific tissues become widespread, then we will see a much more of this sort of thing. An industry of large, specialized tissue factories is not an unrealistic expectation for the 2020s, though I would imagine that such a factory will look a lot more like a hospital, clinic, or microchip fabrication plant on the inside than the name might suggest.

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