The use of stem cells has revolutionalised medicine over the past few decades. Their natural ability to transform themselves into virtually any cell in the body, gives them the potential to cure a huge range of illnesses and injuries.
However, with their great potential, comes a high degree of volatility. Their temperamental nature makes them very difficult to work with, and requires a high level of skill by the researchers and scientists who work with them.
Contrary to what you might think, growing stem cells in quantities required to treat people on a large scale, requires space. And not just any space, but expensive and specific laboratories.
Leading stem cell scientist Sarah Heilshorn associate professor at Stanford University describes some of the issues of dealing with stem cells;
“We just don’t know how to efficiently and effectively grow massive numbers of stem cells and keep them in their regenerative state,” Heilshorn said. “This has prevented us from making more progress in creating therapies.”
Another issue, is that by dividing the stem cells many times makes them lose their ‘stemness’ – their ability to transform into other types of cells. Heilshorn found that in neural stem cells, a way of countering this was for the cells to be touching.
Heilshorn’s work focuses on a particular type of stem cell which matures into neurons and other cells of the nervous system. These types of cells have great potential in the treatment of brain injury, spinal cord injuries and degenerative nervous system disorders such as Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease. However, this means they need to be stored in large quantities whilst retaining their ‘stemness’.
Is a gel the solution?
To solve this conundrum of storage of the stem cells, Heilshorn used polymer-based gels which allow the cells to be grown in three dimensions rather than two. This simple change cuts down the lab space needed to just 1% of what it was previously. Each 3-D gel stack is just 1 milimetre tall.
The gel also allows the stem cells to maintain physical contact with each other preserving critical communication channels between cells.
“The stem cells don’t exactly die if they can’t touch, but they lose that ability to regenerate that we really need for therapeutic success,” Heilshorn added.
Using the gel for stem cell storage in the lab is just step one of Heilshorn’s research. Next she plans to create gels which can be injected directly from the lab dish into the body. This way cells would be at optimum ‘stemness’ and at their most effective for therapies.