Stem cell therapy is a rapidly growing field which is used to treat injuries or disease by introducing new adult stem cells into damaged tissue. It has the potential to dramatically impact human disease. Stem cells are unique in their ability to adapt into the shape and function of a number of other cells. One of the obstacles in the field today is the difficulty in mass-producing stem cells.

The creation of stem cell products consists of two distinct stages. The first, known as proliferation, involves making a large enough quantity of stem cells to make into large tissue. The second stage, known as differentiation, involves turning elemental stem cells into functioning cells. Up until now, each of these stages required a radically different material environment.

Recently scientists at the University of Nottingham, U.K., developed a unique substance that may drastically simplify the manufacture of stem cells. The new stem cell environment—a hydrogel—permits the proliferation of stem cells and their transition into heart cells. The hydrogel in comprised of an alginate-rich polymer which enables the self-renewal of cells and a basic chemical switch to activate a collagen-rich environment once the cell population has grown enough. The change in environment triggers the subsequent stage of cell growth in which the stem cells can develop for a specific purpose.

Professor of Advanced Drug Delivery and Tissue Engineering, Kevin Shakesheff, said: “Our new combination of hydrogels is a first. It allows dense tissue structures to be produced from human pluripotent stem cells (HPSC) in a single step process never achieved before. The discovery has important implications for the future of manufacturing in regenerative medicine. This field of healthcare is a major priority for the UK and we are seeing increasing investment in future manufacturing processes to ensure we are ready to deliver real treatments to patients when HPSC products and treatments go to trial and become standard.”

Another recent breakthrough in stem cell research comes from biology professor Fei Wang who led the research at the University of Illinois. The team developed a new method for developing that motor neurons from stem cells much more quickly than before. This is a promising result for the treatment of disorders such as motor neuron diseases and spinal cord injuries.

For the new method, scientists added molecules designed to signal to precursor cells several days earlier than traditional methods. This not only boosts the production of stem cells by up to 70 percent, it also does so in half the time of the old approach which too between 40 and 50 days. Visiting scholar, Qiuhao Qu who devised the study along with Wang said “”We would argue that whatever happens in the human body is going to be quite efficient, quite rapid, Previous approaches took 40 to 50 days, and then the efficiency was very low — 20 to 30 percent. So it’s unlikely that those methods recreate human motor neuron development.”

Qu’s method, which is able to produce functional motor neuron cells in 20 days, utilizes a compound C molecule that converts the stem cells into “neural progenitor cells;” an early stage in neuron development. Subsequent stage of the cell development is complex and former studies had attempted to add vital signalling molecules six days after the addition of compound C. This resulted in minimal success in converting the cells into motor neurons.

What Qu’s team found was that adding the signalling molecules three days earlier was much more productive and resulted in the progenitor quickly converting to motor neuron cells. The new approach has multiple applications in the laboratory. Researchers can now watch how stem cells from patient’s skin cells can develop into motor neurons, providing insights into neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Other uses for the cells include helping scientist screen for drugs to treat ALS and they may one day lead to the development of a process to restore lost function due to this disease and other similar disorders.

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