There have been several promises over the years about stem cell therapies and what they can do. Many research teams believe that stem cells are the ultimate tool for a new golden age of medicine and can be used to cure cancer, paralysis, and put a halt to many failed pregnancies.
There are several obstacles for researchers to develop these new therapies including growing enough stem cells for tests and development, but a new type of gel developed at Stanford University could help fuel better and more efficient stem cell research. “We just don’t know how to efficiently and effectively grow massive numbers of stem cells and keep them in their regenerative state,” says Sarah Heilshorn, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University. “This has prevented us from making more progress in creating therapies,” she says.
The new polymer-based test gels use a three-dimensional field to grow stem cells compared to the previous two-dimensional growth medium. Growing cells in three dimensions instead of two means the same number of cells can be grown in the lab with only one percent of the previously-needed space. Not only does the new medium need less physical space, but it also requires fewer nutrients and energy to keep the cells healthy. The results of initial tests were so great that Heilshorn at first had trouble believing them before many tests confirmed the first results.
The gel also allows the cells to communicate and thrive as stem cells, a necessary step in development. “The simple act of touching is key to communication between stem cells and to maintaining stemness. If stem cells can’t remodel the gels, they can’t touch one another,” first author Chris Madl explains. The gel could provide a boost in research and development of several types of therapies.
How Gel Can Help Further Research
Retired surgeon Kenneth Pettine of Northern Colorado is researching new stem cell therapies for chronic musculoskeletal therapies and is helping to lead the research in mesenchymal stem cells. Pettine recently completed a three-year study that demonstrated the use of mesenchymal cells as an effective treatment for several types of chronic conditions like degenerative disc disease and more. The development of new techniques for growing and using stem cell treatments along with research like Pettine’s will help make stem cell therapies attainable for more people and applicable for more treatments.