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From Cell to Organ using SIMATIC Hardware

It sounds simple, but to this day it has remained a dream: "regenerating" a new organ from a patient's cells in order to heal serious illnesses and injuries. A group of researchers in Würzburg has now developed systems which could make this vision become a reality a lot sooner.

Producing ‘spare parts’ for human beings

One of the keys to the "regenerated" organ is the right combination of incubator, cell system and bioreactor which the researchers employ to stimulate maturation of the cells and tissue development. The team uses an integrated and efficient combination of engineering software, HMI devices and controller to automate and visualise this internationally ground-breaking solution.

Dr. Jan Hansmann heads the Electronic Tissue Interfaces junior research group working under Professor Heike Walles and is one of the researchers working on the development and production of such implants: "The core of our work at the institute is embedding human cells into a special, three-dimensional matrix where they mature. In this way, we can create different types of tissue, for example, a complete piece of skin with dermis, epidermis, stratum corneum and blood vessels or colon and lung tissue with the corresponding blood vessels and surfaces."

Tissue matures in special reactors in a controlled environment in small incubators. "It is not enough to simply place the cells into a Petri dish and wait," explains Hansmann. "The matrix must have the right structure and biochemistry." Especially in complex implants, it is important that the tissue receives additional stimuli even during the maturation process so that it develops in such a way that it adapts to its future task/environment.

For the maturation and differentiation of the cells, the bioreactor and the organ, implant or tissue must match perfectly. This is why the bioreactor and cell model are developed jointly in Würzburg, first with in-silico models, firstly in a virtual environment on a computer, and later in the real world with the corresponding control engineering. 

"This means we can control pumps, motors and sensors in the incubator as needed so that we can stimulate biological processes in an optimal manner," explains Hansmann.

Automated solutions for research

According to Hansmann, the road to normal clinical application is still a long one, but this is not the only application of Tissue Engineering. "Our tissue and organ models are very important for research on diseases and the development of new drugs. They make it possible to use actual human tissue with blood supply and mechanical load in the research.

This can be used to find specific active substances against infections, test the harmlessness of substances or to better research and understand biological processes of diseases such as lung cancer or skin infections," says Hansmann. The researcher sees a high demand for automated solutions for the production of the corresponding test systems especially for these purposes.

As such, the research team at the University of Würzburg is relying on its own know-how and proven technology from Siemens for automation of the incubators and the bioreactors.

Each incubator is equipped with a SIMATIC HMI Comfort Panel which is used to conveniently call up measured values, analyse them and operate all systems in the incubator. The controller is a distributed SIMATIC ET200 I/O with its own CPU.

Jan Hansmann developed this solution with his team during his time in Stuttgart and was able to simply migrate it on moving to the new work group in Würzburg. The solution, consisting of incubator and automation engineering, is designed and built by the employees themselves. Fifteen of these systems are now available in the lab with more planned in the future.

One uniform system for simplified engineering

The colleagues in Würzburg are using the TIA Portal engineering environment for configuration of the panels and controller. “The system is really simple and is easy to understand. In our lab, we have to integrate many individual units into a continuous architecture – and with the flexibility of the TIA Portal, we can simply expand our equipment step-by-step while having a uniform system that has the same look and feel for our colleagues in the lab," explains Hansmann.

This makes it much easier to use the technology and reduces the researchers' workload by about 50% as compared with the old engineering system. Another positive feature is the modular approach: Different incubators use different modules and these can be simply added to the configuration. The reusability of the previously developed blocks and operating screens is implemented very easily with the library concept in TIA Portal.

The operating screens for visualisation and the blocks for control of the incubator can be saved in global libraries and are thus available for other projects. The configuration can be simply expanded and adjusted for further development stages. "This means we were able to easily integrate the incubators into our IT landscape so that we can store the data of the trials on a central server and simply evaluate and analyse it later on the respective PC.

The research data is backed up reliably and we can create an automatic and permanent backup with the SIMATIC HMI Comfort Panels by simply pressing a button," says the team leader. The researchers were able to rely on the excellent support by the automation supplier from the very beginning.

"We started developing our first studies in cooperation with Siemens back in Stuttgart," confirms Hansmann. The members of his team are currently being trained by the company in customized training sessions so that they can solve upcoming automation tasks even more efficiently and have more time to focus on the important topics of the research project.

Soon the "Tissue Engineers" in Würzburg will have even more opportunities for their work, as that is where the Fraunhofer Translational Centre "Regenerative Therapies for Oncology and Musculoskeletal Diseases" is being built. Its goal is to advance the development of new materials and their transfer from the laboratory to the clinic as well as cell-based regenerative therapies in medical applications. The infrastructure established in the Translational Centre is to be made available to companies for joint development.

"The centre will help optimise the possibilities of targeted production of implants based on human cells to the extent that we can introduce them more quickly to the clinic. We will also be using the efficient Siemens technology based on the TIA Portal engineering framework and the SIMATIC HMI Panels for this centre to set the course for a successful future of regenerative therapies," believes Hansmann. He adds: "It is very important that we have these powerful, automated bioreactor systems available for production so that the numerous products which are currently being developed or are due for clinical trials soon can actually be made."

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