University of Michigan researchers have proven that a special surface, free of biological contaminants, allows adult-derived stem cells to thrive and transform into multiple cell types. Their success brings stem cell therapies another step closer.
To prove the cells' regenerative powers, bone cells grown on this surface were then transplanted into holes in the skulls of mice, producing four times as much new bone growth as in the mice without the extra bone cells.
An embryo's cells really can be anything they want to be when they grow up: organs, nerves, skin, bone, any type of human cell. Adult-derived "induced" stem cells can do this and better. Because the source cells can come from the patient, they are perfectly compatible for medical treatments.
In order to make them, Paul Krebsbach, professor and chair of biological and materials sciences at the U-M School of Dentistry, said, "We turn back the clock, in a way. We're taking a specialised adult cell and genetically reprogramming it, so it behaves like a more primitive cell."
Specifically, they turn human skin cells into stem cells. Less than five years after the discovery of this method, researchers still don't know precisely how it works, but the process involves adding proteins that can turn genes on and off to the adult cells.
Before stem cells can be used to make repairs in the body, they must be grown and directed into becoming the desired cell type. Researchers typically use surfaces of animal cells and proteins for stem cell habitats, but these gels are expensive to make, and batches vary depending on the individual animal.
"You don't really know what's in there," said Joerg Lahann associate professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering.
For example, he said, human cells are often grown over mouse cells, but they can go a little native, beginning to produce some mouse proteins that may invite an attack by a patient's immune system.
The polymer gel created by Lahann and his colleagues in 2010 avoids these problems because researchers are able to control all of the gel's ingredients and how they combine.
"It's basically the ease of a plastic dish," said Lahann. "There is no biological contamination that could potentially influence your human stem cells."