From cell to organ

SIMATIC – serving science: HMI devices for industry support researchers at the Chair of Tissue Engineering at the University of Würzburg
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Producing "spare parts" for human beings

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.

It all depends on the optimum combination

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 visualize 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 – which means on the 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.

The core of our work 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.
Jan Hansmann, head of the Electronic Tissue Interfaces junior research group at the University of Würzburg

Workplace of renowned researchers

At the mention of Würzburg, the first things to come to mind may be the river Main, the impressive Residence palace or the vineyards that stretch all the way into the city.

However, Würzburg is more than a city of culture and wine – it is also a city of science. The University of Würzburg is one of the oldest universities in the German-speaking world and has always been the preferred workplace of many renowned researchers, such as Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, who discovered the X-rays here in 1895. Scientific history may once again be in the making today in the classical buildings of the University located on the Röntgenring: Several teams of researchers at the Chair of Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine led by Professor Heike Walles are currently working on generating new tissue and even entire organs from human cells. One goal of this research is to create implants from these cells to help patients with severe illnesses or injuries.


Supporting research

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, analyze 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 and more are planned. 

Customer benefits

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 visualization 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 analyze 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 Center "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 Center is to be made available to companies for joint development.

"The center will help optimize 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 center 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."

Further References

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