In what is being described as a stem-cell breakthrough, scientists at the Universities of Glasgow and Southampton, UK, have devised a new way of cultivating enough adult stem cells for therapeutic use, which could accelerate research into stem cell treatments for Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and many other illnesses and conditions.

The research has been published in the journal Nature Materials. A new nanoscale plastic is the solution to a problem which so far has made the expansion of stem cells for clinical purposes impossible – and at a very low cost too.

Before this breakthrough, researchers have had to harvest stem cells from the patient, they are then cultured in the lab to raise any initial cell yield so that a batch that is big enough can be cultivated to set off the process of cellular regeneration when they are placed back into the patient.

The problem scientists have faced so far with adult stem cells is spontaneous cell differentiation. The stem cells grow on standard plastic culture surfaces, but they turn into any kind of cell, many of which are of no use in therapy. To try and solve this, the stem cells are immersed in chemical solutions to raise the overall yield. However, the results are barely satisfactory.

Scientists at the University of Glasgow developed and made a new nanopatterned surface, which offers a much easier way to achieve stem cell expansion.

They used an injection-molding manufacturing process similar to that used in the production of Blu-ray discs. 120-nanometre pits cover the surface. The authors say this is far more effective for stem cell growth, while at the same time not losing their stem cell characteristics.

Dr Matthew Dalby, from the University of Glasgow, said:

“Until now, it’s been very difficult to grow stem cells in sufficient numbers and maintain them as stem cells for use in therapy. What we and our colleagues at the University of Southampton have shown is that this new nanostructured surface can be used to very effectively culture mesencyhmal stem cells, taken from sources such as bone marrow, which can then be put to use in musculoskeletal, orthopaedic and connective tissues.

If the same process can be used to culture other types of stem cells too, and this research in under way in our labs, our technology could be the first step on the road to developing large-scale stem cell culture factories which would allow for the creation of a wide range of therapies for many common diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. We’re very excited about the potential applications of the technology and we’re already in the early stages of conversations to make the surface commercially available.

Professor Richard Oreffo, from the University of Southampton, added:

“Development of platform technologies that allow the scale up of skeletal or mesenchymal stem cells offers a whole new approach to skeletal regenerative medicine. If this new technology enables us to create sufficient stem cells, and to pattern hip implants for example, it could herald the development of new medical devices with therapeutic application and approaches to understanding stem cell fate and regulation.

It is important to realise the ability to retain skeletal stem cell phenotype using surface topography offers a step change in current approaches for stem cell biology. The implications for research and future interventions for patients with arthritis and other musculoskeletal diseases are substantial.”

Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive of BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), which partly funded this research said:

“Understanding how stem cells are affected by their environment is key to appreciating how they might be grown in sufficient quantities to be used in research or as therapies. This research shows that the physical surface that the cells are grown on can actually affect their fundamental biology in ways that are useful for us.

Multidisciplinary research is increasingly important and this project is a great example where cell biology, medicine, and engineering come together in powerful synergy to solve a complex problem.”

“Nanoscale surfaces for the long-term maintenance of mesenchymal stem cell phenotype and multipotency”
Rebecca J. McMurray, Nikolaj Gadegaard, P. Monica Tsimbouri, Karl V. Burgess, Laura E. McNamara, Rahul Tare, Kate Murawski, Emmajayne Kingham, Richard O. C. Oreffo & Matthew J. Dalby
Nature Materials (2011) doi:10.1038/nmat3058

Written by Christian Nordqvist