Stem cell breakthrough heralds new era of therapy development

Scientists at the Universities of Glasgow and Southampton have uncovered a new method for culturing adult stem cells which could lead to the creation of revolutionary stem cell therapies for conditions such as arthritis, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

The research, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the University of Glasgow and published in the journal Nature Materials, shows how a new nanoscale plastic can cheaply and easily solve a problem which has previously made the expansion of stem cells for therapeutic purposes impossible.

Currently, when adult stem cells are harvested from a patient, they are cultured in the laboratory to increase the initial yield of cells and create a batch of sufficient volume to kick-start the process of cellular regeneration when they are reintroduced back into the patient.

The process of culturing is made more difficult by spontaneous stem cell differentiation, where stem cells grown on standard plastic tissue culture surfaces do not expand to create new stem cells but instead create other cells which are of no use in therapy. Currently, stem cell expansion is often boosted by immersing the cells in chemical solutions which help to increase the overall yield of stem cells but are limited in their effectiveness.

The new nanopatterned surface, developed and fabricated at the University of Glasgow, is designed to offer a method of stem cell expansion which is much easier to manufacture and use than anything currently available. Created by an injection-moulding process similar to that which is used to manufacture Blu-ray discs, the surface is covered with 120-nanometre pits which the researchers have found is much more effective in allowing stem cells to grow and spread whilst retaining their stem cell characteristics.

Dr Matthew Dalby from the University of Glasgow, who led the research alongside colleague Dr Nikolaj Gadegaard and Prof Richard Oreffo of the University of Southampton, 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.