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Scientists Growing Heart, Bone, and Muscle Cells in Lab

Scientists Growing Heart, Bone, and Muscle Cells in Lab
August 10
13:07 2016

For the first time, scientists at Stanford University have used embryonic stem cells to “grow” pure colonies of 12 different types of cells that could be used to repair the human body.

These cells have been grown in the lab before, but the process has been long (weeks or months) and frustratingly difficult. Scientists often ended up with impure mixtures of different cell types, with little practical use.

MATTHEW PORTEUSWorking with the Genome Institute of Singapore, the Stanford team was able to grow all 12 cell colonies in just a few days. This feat was possible due to the team’s improved understanding of the complicated mix of chemical signals needed to control cellular development.

The team’s achievement was published last month in the journal Cell. “It is fantastic – a gateway to a lot of applications in regenerative medicine,” says co-author Kyle Loh of Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.

The team’s achievement is a huge step towards the goal of repairing damaged tissues with stem cells. In July, a team of physicians at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, in collaboration with Stanford, successfully completed a surgery wherein millions of stem cells were injected into the spinal cord of a patient with a serious spinal cord injury (the goal is to fix damaged neural connections and restore mobility). The patient is healing successfully, and is one of the few individuals in the world to have undergone this type of procedure.

Embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998, and we have been obsessed with the potential ever since.

As the name implies, embryonic stem cells are extracted from embryos. You can think of them as “building blocks” for the human body, each one capable of generating more than 1,000 cells.

This means that embryonic stem cells could be used to build replacement organs or disease models for drug testing – but it’s easier said than done. It has been extremely challenging to recreate the exact pattern of developmental signals that embryos need to develop.

Stem-Cells-Breakthrough-Provides-new-Hope-650x486“It’s like assembling a new car,” explains Loh. “You need to know how it’s put together, in what order and what arrangement.”

The Stanford/Singapore team was able to create a precise map detailing the “roads” through which a stem cell develops into different cell types. There are three primary masses of cells in an early human embryo. The team focused on stem cells for the mesoderm, which is responsible for building heart, bone, cartilage, blood vessels, and parts of the skin and kidneys. Using chemicals and proteins, the team meticulously guided the cells’ “decisions” at each fork in the metaphorical road.

“We were able to get the precise timing and precise combination” of signals, says Loh. These signals forced the cells to follow specific routes, generating pure populations of the desired cell types. In the lab, Loh excitedly watched the identical stem cells evolve into different shapes and then “crawl away from one another and move around the dish.”

In just 24 hours, heart muscle cells grew into long “twitching” strands and bone cells became stars. Within 9 days, the team had crafted pure cell populations of nearly all the desired cells, explains Dr. Irving Weissman, co-author and director of Stanford’s stem cell institute.

“These kinds of research advancements are tremendously encouraging; the potential to proliferate these crucial cell populations this quickly has significant clinical applications to address acute unmet medical needs,” says Morrie Ruffin, managing director of a Washington, DC nonprofit that advocates for the sort of research Stanford is doing.

Hank Greely, director of Stanford’s Center for Law and the Biosciences, is excited about the potential of the team’s discoveries: “The problems of making or isolating pure samples of one specific cell type has been a substantial barrier to medical uses of embryonic stem cells. This research looks like a way around that problem.”

Greely added that we still have more problems to solve, including immune system rejection of the new cells. To prevent rejection, the team is exploring how to use cells grown not from stem cells but from a patient’s own cells. “But every major problem solved means we are one step closer to a possible solution – with great medical benefits,” says Greely.

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April Kuhlman

April Kuhlman

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