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Ensuring Safety During Cell Culture


Successful cell culture requires the use of several potentially harmful tools and materials which need to be handled carefully in the laboratory or cleanroom. The samples themselves can also be dangerous; cell culture is routinely used to grow and analyse viruses, bacteria and other organic material that can affect an analyst’s health if not properly used.

Would you like to make sure your people and processes stay safe?

In this article we look at some of the major safety issues in the cell culture process surrounding poorly characterised cells, harmful cell lines, equipment use and potentially dangerous culture media.

Poor cell characterisation

It is difficult to ensure that the right safety precautions are being taken if cells are not accurately characterised. Analysts need to have confidence that handling and testing approaches used are appropriate, and that the culture conditions created for a sample are suitable. And that can only be achieved when the cell lines are clearly identified.

To ensure cells are correctly characterised it is important that a number of samples are tested, altering as few variables as possible and then analysing the results. The culture temperature, incubation conditions and analysis technique should all be kept constant, with the batch-to-batch consistency of the culture media also a very important consideration.

Correctly characterised cell lines ensure improved safety in the laboratory and limit the chances of cell culture failure.

The culture of harmful cells

When cell culture targets are themselves inherently dangerous to humans (e.g harmful bacteria, viruses, cytotoxic organic material etc.) it is important that analysts understand and mitigate the associated risks.

In most cases cell line risks are classified into one of three categories:

  • Low – cells that do not originate from humans or primates (though this category can include some well-characterised human cell lines).
  • Medium – mammal-derived cells that are poorly characterised.
  • High – primary cells that have been derived from humans, primates or blood and/or contain certain pathogens or infections.

A cell line risk assessment that aims to both identify potential issues and explain how they can be minimised or avoided should be carried out for any new cell culture, with reference to the classification above and all appropriate legislation.

Dangerous cell culture equipment and materials

In a typical cell culture process there are several steps that can pose a danger to the user. Common problems include:

  • Spills and splashes of harmful solvents and reagents that may be corrosive, toxic or mutagenic.
  • Needlestick injury – Damage and/or punctures with contaminated sharp objects and materials such as broken glass fragments or syringe needles.
  • Accidental inhalation or ingestion of dangerous liquids and gases (such as aerosols).

In order to minimise the risks it is important to ensure analysts have a clear set of safety policies and procedures to follow and are up-to-date with all appropriate safety training.

Harmful culture media

Some of the materials used in typical cell culture media can also be harmful to end users. One of the most common and high-performing media materials is collagen, which provides cells with excellent development conditions; delivering nutrients and providing suitable physical support. For more information, please see our recent article on what collagen brings to the culture process.

However, some types of collagen media can cause allergic effects in end users requiring the use of more rigorous personal protective equipment (PPE) gloves, masks and coveralls suitable for cleanroom use. Typical collagen materials (particularly bovine collagen) can also pose a more serious risk to health, both that of analysts and of end users due to hereditary conditions and genetic profiles. These are some of the reasons why here at Jellagen we have developed jellyfish collagen culture media.

Jellyfish collagen has no cytotoxicity profile and has a genetic profile that has been largely unchanged for thousands of years. This evolutionary conserved structure limits any potential health impacts to humans, while also providing a more stable culture environment. You can see more in our recent white paper.

Ultimately, developing a safer laboratory is a question of information – the more that analysts understand and are able to assess the risks involved, the more secure and productive your operations will be.