When my colleagues and I first started talking about biologists and chemists working more closely with engineers, it was a cultural challenge as much as an intellectual one. On one hand, you had biologists who had spent years in labs working on the intricacies of what is happening inside the building blocks of life. On the other, mechanical and software engineers would be focused on partitioning large projects into functional units and delivering practical robust solutions.

Simplifying somewhat the biologists’ approach is very much bottom-up and detailed driven while engineers are taught to break projects down – a top-down approach. It was not just that these two teams approached the work in completely different ways they thought and saw the world in different ways.

I come from an engineering background but am fascinated by biology. I felt sure the way forward for Cambridge Consultants was to do everything we could to break down the barriers between the science lab and engineering bench. Colleagues arrived at the same conclusion but came at it from their specialism in biology. Watching the way technology was moving into the world of cell manipulation and engineering within biology and chemistry, it was our firm belief that our engineers needed to work more closely with our biologists and chemists.

Fast forward about five years and, after a series of multi-million dollar investments in wet labs, scientific staffing and training, that decision is now most certainly bearing fruit. Not only are our biologists working closely with our engineers, we are also seeing some truly ground-breaking projects emerging from the new synergy we have created between the two areas of knowledge.

Mechanical engineers and software designers

To this end, we have taken on more biologists and chemists while making sure that the engineering team understands the importance and fundamental nature of the work they are doing. We run in-house training so that our mechanical engineers and software designers have more of an understanding of what it takes, for example, to keep a cell alive. And we’ve organised engineering courses designed to take biologists through the process of product development.

This has meant we now have a far more streamlined and efficient design process allowing us to optimise and develop better and more complete systems. By the same token, our biologists and chemists have a deep exposure to the process of bringing products to market while speeding up iterations and keeping costs down.

A project that blossomed under this very different way of working is called CellPreserve. It is an innovative system which allows rare cells to be kept alive outside the body far longer than previously possible while being monitored and analysed.

This new system is based around EWOD (Electronic Wetting on Dielectric) and allows us to control, split and merge small droplets of growth medium where rare cells are placed. In essence, it is a tiny incubator for each cell.

Extending cell life

To achieve this, our team of engineers, biologists and developers worked closely together. The problems they faced centred around a cell’s usual metabolic processes, which mean that the oxygen and nutrients in any medium deplete, and rising levels of waste product (primarily carbon dioxide) ramp up its acidity. The cell will start to die, often within a day or two of being placed within the droplet. Our team worked together on a new way of replenishing nutrients within the droplet and removing waste products, creating a practical system which could extend the life of the cell to around 14 days.

In following this path we are, increasingly, operating in a different space to other technology companies, which typically concentrate on the physical design aspects of a project. Today, we are able to start with the fundamental biological process within a life science system optimising both the biology and chemistry to operate effectively within the full system. Similarly, the engineers working on the mechanical, electrical and software systems have developed deep empathy with the underlying biology creating better, more robust and more usable products.

We are now able to help our clients right across their projects, from assay through design to insight though AI and machine learning, a process which offers impressive gains along the way. Please contact me to discuss how this intersection of biology, engineering and computation can unlock the door to breakthrough products.

Author
Symon Cotton
Associate Director

Dr Symon Cotton heads-up the life science business at Cambridge Consultants and has a background in Physics and Computer Science, gaining a PhD in computational medical physics at Birmingham University, UK. He has founded a number of start-up companies bringing novel medical diagnostics to market and now works with numerous companies to develop innovative medical devices.