Cell culture is an amazing achievement of biology that allows cells to be grown outside of their in vivo setting, whether that be the human, animal, microorganism or plant. The technological processes of cell culture have improved dramatically since the first cells were cultured in vitro by Wilhelm Roux in 1885. These include the engineering of sophisticated cell culture hoods that create a sterile working environment, complex nutrient mediums that enable the culturing of almost any animal cell, and novel stackable culture flasks that provide a scale out solution.
However, staffing of cell culture labs is one aspect of the field that has remained largely undeveloped since its conception. The process of maintaining living cells is a 24/7 operation (cells never sleep!) and this is achieved almost entirely through human input and manual labour. Traditionally, very few aspects of cell culture are automated, meaning highly trained scientists are required to perform repetitive, simple tasks daily.
This can lead to a poor working environment that sacrifices staff utilisation and exposes the process to inefficiency, human error, and elevated costs. In this article, we will discuss some of the challenges surrounding staffing of cell culture labs and how automation can improve staff utilisation and the working environment.
The challenges facing cell culture staff
Ask any stem cell biologist what their least favourite part of the job is, and they will likely tell you it’s the requirement to work weekends! More so than any other cell type, stem cells are highly sensitive to slight changes in culture conditions that can initiate or alter the differentiation program of the cell culture. The higher the potency, the higher the sensitivity, and this results in pluripotent stem cells (embryonic or induced) requiring daily attention to change the medium or passage the cells. Although less demanding than stem cell cultures, primary adult cultures and cell lines still require a significant commitment of time and resources. The daily, time intensive nature of cell culture can lead to an unfavourable work environment, where staff are forced to work weekends to maintain highly valuable cultures, negatively impacting the work-life balance of employees.