Tuesday, 05 November 2013 18:18

Working Group – a Portrait: Medicyte GmbH Featured

InVitroJobs regularly presents scientists and their innovative research in “Working group – a Portrait”. The focus is on newly developed methods, their evaluation and an outlook on which animal experiments can be reduced, refined or preferably replaced according to the 3R principle. In this instalment we present the Medicyte GmbH in Heidelberg, Germany, a company that develops special cell lines for use in animal-free research.

The biotech company Medicyte based in Heidelberg focuses on the controlled cultivation of premium quality primary human cells. To this end they have developed the so-called upcyte® technology that allows them to establish new cell systems suitable for use in basic research, the development of new active agents in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industry and for cell therapy. Medicyte was certified according to the quality management norm ISO 9001:2008 in 2011.

Medicyte’s company headquarters in Heidelberg.
Photo: Medicyte GmbH

In vitro methods, i.e. cell culture tests in culture dishes, have already played an important part in screening1 pharmaceuticals or in basic research, e.g. investigating single cellular processes. These assays deliver valuable insights when employed in medical research, cellular biology, pharmaceutical research, the development of vaccines and in genetic research. Cell cultures can be developed and used in single or multiple cell layers, in co-culture, in 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional growth, or even in spherical or organ-like structures.

Animal welfare advocates and interested citizens have been demanding that animal experiments be replaced by cell cultures (in vitro methods) and other animal-free methods for a long time. Unfortunately, the number of animals that are purely organ donors, i.e. are not even used for animal tests, but killed solely to harvest their tissue and organs as a source of cells for cell-based assays, has continually risen in the past years.

Nonetheless, the kind of cells used for these tests is decisive. Cultivatable cell lines2 can often be problematic with regard to longer periods of time, e.g. due to a genetic instability, and the results obtained may become irrelevant due to the loss of important characteristics. Unreliable or non-predictive results from cell cultures cannot contribute to later approved replacement methods for animal experiments. The characteristics of freshly isolated primary cells are similar to those of the organ for a certain length of time, but after a while the cells must once again be isolated from the organ. Only a little material can be obtained from each isolation, insufficient for the amount required for comparative studies.

Medicyte GmbH: a gold standard with cell lines?
Pharmacological metabolic tests, i.e. uptake, distribution, metabolisation and excretion of a substance, cannot be conducted satisfactorily, due to the limited number of available primary cells3 and the limited quality of cell lines. This impacts not only the pharmaceutical industry, but also the cosmetics industry, as well as the chemicals industry, which must investigate the toxicity of each newly developed substance within the framework of the EU on the Regulation Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH).

A staff member checks the quality of upcyte® cells.
Photo: Medicyte GmbH

In order to solve this problem, Medicyte has specialised in the development of so-called cell strains4 called upcyte® cells. Upcyte® technology combines the quality of primary cells with the quantity of cell lines.

Medicyte provides not only cells, but also nutrient media for the upcyte® cells.
Photo: Medicyte GmbH.

Upcyte® cells are “upregulated”, genetically modified primary cells that are capable of controlled proliferation by cell division for longer periods of time, thus providing a sufficient quantity of cells for comparative experiments. These cells also keep their characteristics during the whole time of their expansion.

What do the insights mean for the myriad animals whose organs are harvested? Human-specific cell cultures could reduce the use of organs, tissues and other animal body parts for scientific questions pertinent to humans. To this end it is also necessary to stock up existing funding for animal-free research. The use of cell strains such as Medicyte’s can offer a good alternative to the use of animals.

… “Very meaningful results” ...

InVitroJobs spoke with Dr. Birgit Tramnitz, Business Development Manager at Medicyte GmbH, about the current development of cell cultures.

InVitroJobs: What are the research possibilities that now exist with regard to cell lines?

Dr. Tramnitz: Cell lines are used nowadays to answer diverse questions. Cell lines are available in sufficient quantities and allow a considerable standardisation of experiments, so that they can be used for instance for “high throughput screening”5 or the production of recombinant proteins.

InVitroJobs: Does cell line research offer the possibility of replacing animal experiments?

Dr. Tramnitz: Unlike animal experiments, studies with human cell lines or cell strains deliver very meaningful results for the ultimate application of drugs in humans.

InVitroJobs: Why do many researcher use primary cells nonetheless?

Dr. Tramnitz: In vitro studies with primary cells are currently mandatory for approval procedures, as the results are more predictive than those from cell lines.

InVitroJobs: Why do cell lines lose their differentiative characteristics with the passage of time? Isn’t working with cell lines also problematic, that for instance may derive from a cancer cell due to a possible genetic instability?

Dr. Tramnitz: A continuous cultivation of cell lines and the associated risk of cumulative genetic alterations can lead to a loss of characteristics, which means that experimental work with cell lines can certainly be fraught with problems.

InVitroJobs: How could one solve the problem that human-specific primary cells, such as from surgery or paracenteses, doe not deliver enough material?

Dr. Tramnitz: The limited availability of primary cells could be worked around by generating new cell strains such as the upcyte® hepatocytes, with characteristics similar to those of primary cells but available in large quantities.

InVitroJobs: Are cell lines more expensive than primary cells?

Dr. Tramnitz: Cell lines and cell strains are cheaper compared to primary cells, especially when a higher cell throughput is required.

InVitroJobs: How is the demand for cell lines developing?

Dr. Tramnitz: If cell lines and cell strains display the characteristics relevant to clients, then the demand is high, as the limited number of primary cells is a constant factor.

InVitroJobs: How would you assess the future development?

Dr. Tramnitz: The demand for cell strains will increase with the continuing optimisation of cell strain cultivation.

InVitroJobs: Thank you very much for the interview.


(1) http://www.scinexx.de/newsletter-wissenswert-62-1.html
(2) http://www.beuth.de/de/norm/din-en-iso-10993-5/113571989
(3) http://www.igb.fraunhofer.de/
(4) http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zellkultur


1 Screening: pre-sorting of substances that could potentially become new active agents.
2 Cell line: cells, often genetically altered, that are cultivated and re-cultivated over a long term. However, they have also lost a variety of characteristics, such as the ability to metabolise foreign substances.
3 Primary cells: cells freshly isolated from an organ or tissue, e.g. from surgery.
4 Cell strain: cell culture intermediate between primary cells and cell lines with far more characteristics than cell lines.
5 High throughput screening: large scale automated substance testing that allows multiple simultaneous sampling.

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