What was once only heard of in science fiction has now become the new normal: Around the world, scientists are creating mini-organs derived from stem cells — three-dimensional organoids grown in dishes that mimic some of the structure and function of real organs. Their potential to expand basic research and drug discovery recently got a major boost because of an update that would likely make Elon Musk squirm: a new automated system in which robots create human mini-organs with unprecedented speed.

In a paper released Thursday in Cell Stem Cell (the journal so nice they named it twice), researchers from the University of Washington School of Medicine reveal that this new technique will allow for the mass production of organoids. This, in turn, will allow biomedical research to have its own version of a factory assembly line — a boost that can increase the speed of drug trials and discovery.

“Ordinarily, just setting up an experiment of this magnitude would take a researcher all day, while a robot can do it in 20 minutes,” study lead Benjamin Freeman, Ph.D., explained in a statement released Thursday. “On top of that, the robot doesn’t get tired and make mistakes. There’s no question: For repetitive, tedious tasks like this, robots do a better job than humans.”

Mini-livers, mini-organs
Self-organizing mini-livers.

Here, Freeman and his team created the first robotic system that successfully automates the manufacturing of organoids from pluripotent stem cells. Pluripotent stem cells are the keywords here: Similar robotic approaches have been applied to adult stem cells, but pluripotent stem cells have the special advantage of being able to become any type of organ. This is because they can create cells from all three basic body layers, meaning they can potentially produce any cell or tissue the body needs to repair itself.

These liquid-handling robots introduce the pluripotent stem cells into plates filled with 384 miniatures wells, and from there, they can “coax” them into becoming organs within 21 days. In the experiment outlined in the paper, the robots specifically created kidney organoids at ten or more per micro-well, meaning thousands of little kidneys per plate.

The robots were also trained to analyze the mini-organs as they were being grown so that scientists can see if they need to make any improvements to the specimens as they progress. In the procedure outlined in the paper, the scientists decided to expand the number of blood vessel cells in the mini-organs based on that analysis. They realized that would make the organoids be more similar to actual kidneys.

And they put that information to good use: Once they got the mini-organs down, they were able to quickly create a new batch with mutations that cause polycystic kidney disease, an inherited condition that often leads to kidney failure. Because of the large number of specimens, the scientists were able to tweak a series of factors in each kidney — a process that eventually demonstrated that the presence of a myosin inhibitor called blebbistatin caused the development of cysts. Myosins are a superfamily of motor proteins and this “unexpected” finding hints that it’s their effect on muscle contraction that kidneys need to functionally work.

Freedman says that this automated process is a “new ‘secret weapon’ in our fight against disease.” And if all goes to plan, this “secret weapon” could eventually lead to a boom in organ replacement as well.