Trends in the business unite »Life sciences engineering«

The “Life Sciences Engineering“ business unit of the Fraunhofer IPT researches and develops future-oriented manufacturing technologies for the entire product range of the life sciences and industries such as pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and medical technology. Jelena Ochs, the head of the business unit, presents some of the applications that benefit from this interdisciplinary approach.

How can the know-how of the Fraunhofer IPT benefit the development of the life sciences?

Since we are approaching these issues from the manufacturing point of view, we can inform common projects with a new, interdisciplinary perspective. Personalized healthcare is a specifically interesting field for us, since its main point of reference is the patient with his individual demands and since it therefore requires customized products. The whole field of stem cell research and regenerative medicine provides an arena for the interdisciplinary cooperation of biotechnologies and production technologies, because only high degrees of automation and high-throughput technologies can provide the requirements of personalized healthcare.

The automation of manufacturing processes also allows the production of lab-on-a-chip systems in large series. This helps doctors to make quick diagnoses and to take prompt therapeutical action – which is specifically crucial when potentially fatal illnesses are involved. The Boston-based Fraunhofer CMI, our close partner in this field, is developing tests to identify resistance levels with unprecedented speed. This can save many lives.

What contributions can be made by networks and data processing?

Over the past few years, it has become possible to process ever larger amounts of data. The data that we acquire with specially developed sensors and measuring instruments can make it easier to diagnose illnesses and help doctors to develop individualized approaches to their patients. Laboratory assistants will in the future be able to count on the support of intelligent hardware networks. By tracing and monitoring each step of laboratory analyses and by backing up each such step with the required amount of data, errors will be significantly reduced. The safety of medical products also stands to benefit, since production processes will also be closely supervised. The automated production of cell-based medical products will equally profit from high levels of data consistency. By integrating different measuring systems, cell cultures can be monitored in real time, and the data can be directly forwarded to inform the process control system. Based on this process, algorithms can be developed for an intelligent optimization of the production process.

How can we achieve a flexible automation of biotechnology processes?

One important field where machine technology with specifically high levels of adaptivity is required is the cultivation of adult stem cells. Companies that manage to develop automated processes of stimulating the growth of such cells quickly and safely will be able to test the effectiveness of pharmaceutical products with the patients’ own tissue or to develop new therapies, for example healing the wounds of patients who are suffering from diabetes. This is an area where we can use our production technology skills and experiences in many ways – developing MES systems for automated cell cultures, integrating sophisticated metrology into laboratory processes through standardized interfaces and designing or evaluating process chains. The combination of our production know-how with the knowledge of biologists and medical scientists can prove to be enormously valuable: systematic representations of previously manual processes may help us to design facilities with autonomous control systems that allow us to automate biotechnology processes, relying on customized or adapted measuring technology.