February 26, 2014

Democratizing Living Cellular Technology

@JennWebb recently wrote an article for the O’Reilly Radar titled Democratizing Technology and the Road to Empowerment.  She starts out the article with a nice summary of what it means to Democratize Technology.  Jenn writes “Advancements in technology are making what once was relegated only to highly educated scientists, engineers and developers accessible to — and affordable for — the mainstream.“  Now, the blog she writes for is focused on the intersection of Hardware and Software (or the “physical and digital worlds” is how they phrase it), while we at RoosterBio are imagining a World where biotechnology, specifically living cellular technologies, are simplified and cost-reduced to the point that you don’t have to be a PhD researcher in a well-funded laboratory to perform your own experiments or build novel things out of living cells. The concept of biology paralleling the advances of IT are well laid out elsewhere.

Today, it is much easier to incorporate living cells into your research than it was 20 years ago.  This is evidenced by the proliferation of Cell Biology capabilities in Engineering departments all over the world as Biomedical Engineering has turned into a formalized academic discipline.  When I was doing undergraduate research at the University of Michigan in the early 1990’s, it took months and several collaboration attempts before we could get living cells onto the biomaterial constructs we were making at the time.  Today, it is more commonplace to find the tools to marry the Worlds of Cell Biology and Engineering in the same laboratory.  Despite this, the total number of labs with such capabilities and expertise is still very small.

 We believe that the steps required to fully Democratize Cellular Technologies will be to:

  1. Make cell biology simpler by offering standardized, high quality, well-characterized cellular products that work consistently and reproducibly (thereby making cumbersome troubleshooting processes nearly obsolete)
  2.  Dramatically lower the cost of cells so that more cells can be supplied at once –  decreasing the time for customers to get to value-adding experiments and providing greater access to high-quality cells to smaller research groups and individuals, and
  3.  Provide cells in product formats that support researchers that are trying to build complex multi-cellular structures such as engineered tissues, or products that contain living cells (for example, biobots)
Another recent blog post on O’Reilly Radar by @MikeLoukides talks about how “Disaffected grad students and postdocs increasingly turn to DIYbio” and Biohacker spaces to perform the work they want to do.  I can’t imagine any of these people working on cultured primary cells.  With today’s marketed primary cell and media products, it is economically challenging to perform cell culture with clinically-relevant, high-quality cells such as Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSCs).  The expense to perform experiments to genetically modify MSCs or to perform bioprinting with MSCs is out of reach of most people. The out of pocket cost just to obtain cells can be greater than $1000, and it goes up from there in order to begin and run meaningful experiments (cost of cell culture media, culture vessels, labor, etc).  We, at RoosterBio, are working to decrease the cost of, and increase the accessibility of, living cells so that more people can perform high quality experiments without the budget of a well-funded academic lab.

Today’s technology is rapidly moving toward the integration of biologics into everything from cell therapies, engineered tissues, bio-robotics, nanotechnology, implantable devices, 3D printing, DIY kits, and even consumer products.  This coming decade will see the incorporation of living cells into all these platforms and others not yet imagined. However, including living cells in products currently is cost-prohibitive, and primary cells are not supplied at volumes that support many research and product development efforts.  To expedite this biologics revolution, inventors, developers and suppliers will require a limitless, standardized, low-cost supply of well-characterized cells that have the potential for human application. This is the problem that RoosterBio has set out to solve.

One step at a time.


  1. So far "the mariage between cell biology and engineering" is not "a match made in heven". Very few engineers appreciate the principles of living systems which have evolved over billions of years. There is certainly a language barrier. Hopefully the curricula in the new Bioengineering Programs will help.

  2. Thanks for the comment!

    Having come through a Biomedical Engineering graduate program, I have seen first hand the spectrum of Engineers and their appreciation for Biology. I can assure you there are several out there with a strong fundamental understanding of both - but this is the exception and not the rule. It is simply very challenging to get a solid foundation is multiple technical disciplines.

    The solution to the challenge, and what is done often in Industry, is to create cross-functional teams with cell biologists, chemists and engineers all working towards the same goals. I have created such teams in the past, and it can truly be a 1 + 1 = 3 type of scenario when managed correctly. Once an engineer has the correct "biological specification" to design towards, then they can definitely do wonders. The trick is to bridge the language barriers that you mention and get both sides communicating.

    ISCT has touched on this concept in this Article on Cell Therapy BioProcessing: http://www.bioprocessintl.com/manufacturing/cell-therapies/cell-therapy-bioprocessing-314870/


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