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Cell Culture Workflows In a Spin? How Next-generation Centrifuges Are Overcoming Common Challenges

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Centrifugation plays a vital role in cell culture workflows. In passaging, for example, cultures must be spun down to concentrate cells and separate them from old growth media. When experiments are concluded, centrifugation is often used to support sample characterization and analysis. Another key use of the technology is to collect intra- and extracellular products such as antibodies and other proteins.

Benchtop centrifuges are the workhorse of cell culture laboratories, and are used across a wide range of applications. However, when employing conventional benchtop systems, scientists can encounter a set of challenges that can put the integrity, productivity and reproducibility of their workflows at risk. In this article, we discuss these issues and explain how the latest technological advances are helping laboratories to overcome them, allowing organizations to improve efficiency and achieve more reliable results.

Challenges associated with conventional benchtop centrifugation systems

In any cell culture laboratory, the most fundamental challenge is avoiding contamination. The unintentional introduction of micro-organisms can severely impact productivity, essentially bringing cell culture activities to an abrupt halt while the facility is cleaned and materials replenished. Through the consequent loss of work, resources and time, organizations can suffer immense costs.

There are several ways in which conventional benchtop centrifugation workflows can render laboratories vulnerable to contamination. By their very nature, centrifuges produce aerosols, raising the possibility of transferring material between samples. This risk is increased further if seals are not fully effective or if the instrument is difficult to clean. In some models, channels designed to facilitate drainage out of the chamber can provide a potential route for the ingress of contaminants.

Maintaining productivity while supporting multiple different workflows can also prove challenging. Modern cell culture laboratories utilize a wide range of sample and vessel types, which must be accommodated quickly and easily to maintain efficiency. For example, scientists may need to centrifuge cells in 50 mL conical tubes and then use the same instrument to spin down samples for sequencing in 2 mL tubes. To switch easily and conveniently between these different applications, changing to a smaller capacity rotor is essential. However, this is often a time-consuming and cumbersome process requiring specific tools.

Even when centrifuges permit rotors to be changed, some conventional benchtop systems do not support all vessel types commonly employed in a cell culture laboratory. Some systems cannot accommodate cell culture flasks, meaning that scientists often need to transfer samples to a conical tube and back again when passaging cells. These transfer stages take time and raise the risk of losing sample material or introducing contamination.

In addition to the challenges around productivity and biocontainment, it can also be difficult to achieve good reproducibility using conventional benchtop centrifuges. High run-to-run consistency is vital in cell culture, not only to support reliable results in research projects, but also to meet Good Manufacturing Practice requirements when scaling up operations for production. For example, temperature fluctuation is a major source of inconsistency in centrifugation workflows and is a particular concern when using refrigerated centrifuge systems, while working with sensitive cell lines. Differences in the total centrifugation force applied to samples can also limit reproducibility: these variations can result from system-specific factors such as the age of the instrument, as well as situational factors including voltage fluctuations and load. A further source of inconsistency between runs is vibration in the deceleration phase when working at low centrifugation forces, as this can cause cells resuspension.

Using advanced benchtop centrifuges to drive biocontainment, productivity and reproducibility gains

Recent advances in benchtop centrifugation systems are now enabling cell culture laboratories to achieve the highest levels of biocontainment, productivity and reproducibility. Some of the latest systems minimize the risk of contamination by employing highly efficient seals around the lid and motor to stop air entering the chamber. Other innovations such as one-handed bucket sealing   make it easier to achieve excellent biocontainment. Many of the newest models are now certified by internationally recognized safety organizations, a significant advantage as regulatory requirements become more stringent.

Ongoing improvements in design mean that many benchtop systems incorporate features to enhance productivity. Advanced rotor exchange mechanisms allow scientists to securely switch between rotors at the push of a button, significantly reducing transfer times to a matter of seconds. Modern instruments can also facilitate quicker loading and unloading routines, thanks to improved ergonomic lid designs and wider opening angles. Additionally, some new models incorporate user interfaces optimized for ease of use, offering touchscreen capabilities, simple menu access and intuitive operation to streamline workflows.

Laboratory productivity can also be enhanced using centrifuge systems that accommodate a wider variety of applications. Instruments with carbon fiber rotors can support an extensive range of vessels, since the material can be molded to perfectly fit tubes, bottles and other consumables. The enhanced flexibility offered by these systems eliminates the need for the inefficient three-stage transfer protocol in passaging.

Technological advances in benchtop centrifuges are also improving run-to-run reproducibility. Systems with built-in ‘pre-cooling’ features, for instance, ensure that the centrifuge is at the desired temperature before the run begins, supporting more consistent environmental control. In addition to measuring in-chamber air temperature, the newest models now enable the control of bucket core temperature, better maintaining samples at the correct conditions.

To support more consistent total centrifugation forces, software has been developed to ensure that different samples are subjected to the same total force regardless of system-specific or situational factors. Solutions such as advanced integrator functions are able to automatically compensate for these variables by calculating the force experienced by the sample and adjusting the spin time to compensate. In this way, laboratories can benefit from improved consistency between operators, runs, instruments and sites.

Next-generation benchtop centrifuges are enhancing cell culture workflows

The latest advances in benchtop centrifugation technology now enable cell culture scientists to overcome the limitations of conventional centrifuge systems. By supporting enhanced productivity, reproducibility and biocontainment, these next-generation instruments are allowing cell culture laboratories to boost performance and generate more consistent results.