Relocating a laboratory that houses delicate cell lines is no small feat. A detailed plan must be created, heavy equipment must be moved, and, above all else, great care must be taken to minimize cell contamination during the move.
Last year, Mai Nguyen and Anne Baldwin faced this challenge when they moved Eikon’s Cell Line Engineering (CLE) lab, wherein engineered cells are cloned for use in Single Molecule Tracking (SMT) and drug discovery assays, to a new space in Eikon’s Point Eden building in Hayward, California.
In true Eikon spirit, Mai and Anne viewed the impending move as a chance to reimagine how the work is done. Rather than simply replicate the existing CLE lab, they collaborated on a redesign aimed at increasing automation and efficiency while simultaneously lowering the risk of contamination.
Eikon’s state-of-the-art CELL-EEE lab is the result of this collaboration.
“We had lofty goals with CELL-EEE,” says Anne, who leads Eikon’s Automation Engineering team. “A scale-up in production normally means higher contamination rates, at least at first, but we wanted to avoid that.”
Anne explains that she and Mai aimed to triple their existing cell line processing capabilities while simultaneously reducing the risk of cell contamination in the new space. The secret to achieving these goals? “Robotic automation and human teamwork,” says Anne.
The Automation and CLE teams looked carefully at every step that required manual labor in their existing cell processing workflow, and devised ways to automate tasks wherever possible.
“Eikon is the first place I’ve worked where automation is a completely different department from the cell biology team, and I see now that it’s really smart to separate those functions, even at a small company” says Mai, whose CLE team uses various gene-editing tools to engineer cell lines that the company’s drug discovery teams then use for screening assays.
“Since my team is primarily focused on identifying and stabilizing the cell lines with the highest expression rates, we’re not always as focused on automating our overall workflow. Anne and her team are solely focused on automation, and they help us tremendously by eliminating manual steps in the process of cloning our cells,” says Mai.
Anne notes that Mai’s and her enthusiasm to test assumptions and try new approaches is fully supported by leadership at Eikon. “Things are very fluid in Research and Engineering; our managers love it when we take things apart, evaluate them, and rebuild them better than they were originally,” she says.
Anne gives the example of her manager, VP of Engineering Reed Kelso. “Mai and I joined the company within a week of each other,” says Anne, “and Reed told us right away to buddy up, review the current workflow from our respective viewpoints, and collaborate on ways to make the new lab cleaner and more streamlined.”
“A lab like CELL-EEE could not have been accomplished with just one team,” says Mai. While Anne and Mai’s teams led the effort, they also relied on help from Ryan Hollowell and his Mechanical Engineering team as well as the Lab Operations team and multiple other departments and individuals to complete the project.
In the summer of 2023, Eikon’s Cell Line Engineering lab will move yet again, this time to a new building. This relocation presents new opportunities for growth.
“Our goal with the next move is to increase our cell line processing capabilities tenfold – which is a huge scale-up – so we’re brainstorming hard on ways to further optimize automation and overall workflow,” says Anne.
Anne and Mai are inspired by Eikon’s mission to discover important new medicines, and they understand the significant role that the CLE lab plays in achieving that mission.
“We’re helping our drug discovery colleagues to identify druggable targets and screen for target specificity in our preclinical pipeline,” says Mai.
“It’s great to know that what we are doing in CLE leads to faster identification of viable drug candidates, and that someday those drugs will help patients. I’m very glad to be part of the Eikon team.”