A new finding published in the journal Nature Materials by Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) scientists detail a new breakthrough in stem cell technology where specialists “squeeze” mature cells into stem cells for specialized medical purposes.
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Stem cell technology is now rising to the forefront of modern medicine, largely because they can change into cells of organs targeted by diseases such as diabetes or Parkinson’s among others – making it possible for health experts to treat patients suffering from these diseases.
In order to manufacture the accurate stem cells, EPFL scientists developed a special gel that boosts the ability of normal cells to transform into stem cells by squeezing them into shape, leading to the possibility of producing them on a large scale.
Scientists are more interested in the “induced pluripotent stem cells” or IPCS because these are most useful for medical purposes among the various types of stem cells available. IPCS is produced from mature, adult cells which have been genetically reprogrammed to act like stem cells – hence the word “induced.” These cells can be regrown into various cells for the skin, lung, liver, pancreas among other organs.
Before this time, scientists had not succeeded much with stem cells because they had been using two-dimensional conditions of cell culture flask or petri dish to cultivate the stem cells, even against the fact that body cells thrive in three-dimensional conditions.
To this extent, Matthias Lutolf of EPFL used his lab to create a three-dimensional cell culture system where good cells are placed into a gel with normal growth nutrients.
"We try to simulate the three-dimensional environment of a living tissue and see how it would influence stem cell behavior," Lutolf explained. "But soon we were surprised to see that cell reprogramming is also influenced by the surrounding microenvironment." The microenvironment in this case, is the gel.
The lab modified the composition of the gel to reprogram cells faster via more efficient techniques – explaining the density and stiffness of the gel, helping it to squeeze cells into stem cells by exerting various forces on the cells.
"Each cell type may have a 'sweet spot' of physical and chemical factors that offer the most efficient transformation," said Lutolf. "Once you find it, it is a matter of resources and time to create stem cells on a larger scale."
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The research was a collaboration between EPFL’s Institute of Bioengineering, Core Facility PTECH, and the Institute of Chemical Sciences and Engineering. The study was funded by the EU, the European Research Council, the Swiss National Science Foundation, and SystemsX.