Automation and remote working in a biotech lab

Life after the COVID-19 lockdown is slowly reaching a “new normal”. Many of us (technicians, PhDs, postdocs, engineers, scientists, students) are back in the laboratory because we cannot work from home. It is difficult to adjust our lab routines to the new restrictions, because labs are busy environments with people sharing space and equipment on a regular basis.

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Social distancing rules in the working space include forbidding coffee machines, coffee rooms, and cafeterias. Some labs even have lines drawn on the floor to indicate where you are allowed to walk and in which direction. What does this mean for a standard day of work in the lab?

We understand that a gradual return to work is best to avoid a potential viral spread. Yes, we are perfectly aware that it is going to be challenging, but we also know that the new rules are here to help us keep the curve flattened.

The COVID-19 “new normal” can add stress to our days, so it becomes essential to find alternatives to optimize lab work. In this context, a valuable tool for laboratories working with cell cultures is remote monitoring. This alternative offers flexibility to daily lab routines by reducing the need to go into the cell culture lab to check your cells. The amount of time we spent going in and out of the lab “just to check your cells” is considerable and now, with the new COVID-19 rules, you need to reduce this as much as possible.


Lab work in the times of COVID-19: new rules, new routines

Laboratories have adjusted by increasing vigilance and reinforcing guidelines on cleaning and distancing. The set of new rules depends on the type of lab, but they have three points in common: wear a mask, avoid touching surfaces, and practice social distancing.

Since social distancing has been shown to be essential in preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, it is the main measure being applied to lab work. For example, the number of people allowed in a shared lab simultaneously has been decreased, so that people can maintain adequate spacing (1.5-2 m from each other). To ensure labs do not become too full at one time, experiments and lab work must be scheduled in advance. Some labs use shift systems, reducing the available lab time from 8 hours to 5-6 hours per day, so that several shifts can fit in one day (morning, afternoon, and/or evening).


Remote monitoring as an alternative to minimize the time spent in the lab

As a lab worker or researcher working with cell cultures, these “new normal” COVID-19 rules mean having to make considerable adjustments to how to plan your day. You cannot stay “a bit longer” if you want to finish an experiment. You cannot plan many experiments at the same time. You cannot improvise.

Time is a limiting factor and cells require routine checks to properly plan the next steps in your experiments. Remote cell culture monitoring devices, equipped with cloud service, offer a solution. Remote monitoring provides a way to assess your cell culture without having to take them out of the incubator. To do so, a small cloud-connected microscopy platform is set up inside the incubator so the cells can be monitored in real-time through an online environment.

Remote monitoring can assist in tracking cell health or activity status and preventing overgrowth of cell cultures (which leads to cell death). Being able to assess your cells remotely on a regular basis, independent of how many people are currently in the lab, allows you to plan your in-lab time more efficiently. You can avoid unnecessary trips to the lab to “just check” on your cells or avoid going to perform a readout of an experiment (at the wrong time? When your cells are not ready?). Being able to see your cells from your desk adds flexibility to your already tight schedule. In addition, remote monitoring devices are equipped with cloud-based functionalities, which allow you to store data and perform image analysis without the need to enter the lab. All of which is accessible from any internet-connected device, making remote work more efficient.


We recommend the CytoSMART Lux2 Duo Kit for labs that are looking for a remote solution to monitor cell cultures. For labs that are looking for monitoring fluorescent cultures, we recommend the CytoSMART Lux3 FL. These mini live-cell microscopy systems provide real-time insight into the status of your cultures and are equipped with automated confluency detection software.



An automated live-cell imaging solution

Remote monitoring devices also offer the option of performing live-cell imaging experiments. They are an ideal solution in COVID-19 times, because experiments that last days can be performed without ever having to enter the lab, saving time, and respecting social distancing norms.

An additional advantage of using remote monitoring devices for live-cell imaging is kinetic imaging of a single cell culture over a period of time, requires fewer cells than if multiple experiments are run with sacrifice at desired time points. As an extra benefit, less time is needed for culturing and medium changing.

A good way of illustrating the benefit of these devices is their use for drug screening (for example, for antiviral compounds against SARS-CoV-2). Image-based analysis of live cells in a time-resolved manner provides a complete picture of dynamic biological processes. By quantifying transient phenotypic responses of the cells in any given time point, you can determine accurate scheduling and dosing regimens of your drug.


For researchers looking to perform live-cell imaging assays using well-plates, we recommend the CytoSMART Omni. This device performs biological assays for hours to weeks at a time, without having to be in the lab.



The case of high containment labs (BSL-3/4)

Laboratories where experiments are performed with highly pathogenic microorganisms, like SARS-CoV-2, are known as high containment laboratories or biosecurity level 3 or 4 laboratories (BSL-3 or BSL-4). They are the ones depicted in the news, where lab workers can be seen wearing a wide variety of personal protective equipment (whole-body suits, gloves, shoe covers, goggles, masks, head covers, respirators, etc.). We are talking about laboratories where a long list of rules already exists to provide adequate protection against the pathogen. If on top of that you add the COVID-19 rules of social distancing and time constraints, work in these laboratories can become even more arduous.

Consequently, the benefits offered by remote monitoring are especially beneficial when working in BSL-3/4 laboratories. By not having to enter the lab to do routine checks of cell cultures, you save time (the dressing up routine is very time-consuming) and disposable material (like N95 masks that are so essential now in other settings). Besides, the individual is less exposed to the pathogen and to other lab workers (social distancing!).


We wrote about the benefits of remote working for BSL-3/4 labs. Find that article here.



Remote monitoring applications in SARS-CoV-2 research

When talking about lab work and the “new normal”, it is impossible not to talk about research done on SARS-CoV-2, the agent responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. What has been discovered about this virus in such a short time frame (4-5 months) is amazing and the speed at which scientific research is moving in this specific field has never been seen (the number of scientific papers is doubling every 14 days). How can research on SARS-CoV-2 benefit from remote monitoring of cell cultures?

Remote monitoring devices address the question: which cell types are preferentially being infected by the virus? Knowing this can tell you which organs might be targeted at the beginning of an infection, which can help understand the pathology of the disease. With remote monitoring devices, it can be possible to simultaneously follow the infection of several cell types to find out which one presents a cytopathic effect (CPE), when, and to what degree. A group from the University of Hong Kong [1], for example, compared the replication kinetics of the virus in different cell types and profiled the cell damage after infection.

As we all know, there is a global arms race for a coronavirus vaccine. A classical readout to define the efficacy of some vaccines is to screen for neutralizing antibodies in serum, which are the wishful result of an ideal vaccine. But the only way of really declaring an antibody as neutralizing is by challenging it against the active infectious form of the virus, so virus neutralization assays have to be done in BSL-3 facilities [2]. Using remote monitoring, infection or neutralization can be tracked in real-time with limited exposure of the user. Several serum samples (for example, of patients enrolled in a clinical trial) can be screened on a regular basis and the quality of neutralization of different antibodies can also be assessed without fixing the cells and generating artifacts.


To conclude

Biotech and life science laboratories (academic institutes and companies) have reevaluated their lab procedures as a consequence of COVID-19 restrictions. The new guidelines include several measures that allow working in the laboratory with some amount of distancing. However, these measures can be restrictive for lab users, especially for the ones working in high containment BSL-3 or BSL-4 laboratories. Hence, we need to find alternatives to avoid making lab work more stressful because it is an essential activity that will, eventually, take us out of the COVID-19 pandemic (#WeNeedScience). Remote monitoring of cell culture is a solution that can be beneficial to all laboratories because it can save time and limiting the need to enter the lab.

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