There has been an ongoing ethical controversy about human embryonic stem cell research but progress has been made nicely using adult stem cells, such as from marrow donors.
A barrier to progress in the field of regenerative medicine has been the difficulty of growing adult stem cells for clinical applications and because mesenchymal stem cells have a limited life span in laboratory cultures, researchers who use the cells in research and treatments must continuously obtain fresh samples from bone marrow donors, which is expensive and time-consuming. In addition, mesenchymal stem cells from different donors can vary in performance.
Biomedical researchers at the University at Buffalo say they have engineered adult stem cells that scientists can grow continuously in culture, a discovery that could speed development of cost-effective treatments for diseases including heart disease, diabetes, immune disorders and neurodegenerative diseases. They created the new cell lines, named "MSC Universal", by genetically altering mesenchymal stem cells, which are found in bone marrow and can differentiate into cell types including bone, cartilage, muscle, fat, and beta-pancreatic islet cells.
The cells they modified show no signs of aging in culture, but otherwise appear to function as regular mesenchymal stem cells do – including by conferring therapeutic benefits in an animal study of heart disease. Despite their propensity to proliferate in the laboratory, MSC-Universal cells did not form tumors in animal testing.
"Our stem cell research is application-driven," says Techung Lee, PhD, UB associate professor of biochemistry and biomedical engineering in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who led the project. "If you want to make stem cell therapies feasible, affordable and reproducible, we know you have to overcome a few hurdles. Part of the problem in our health care industry is that you have a treatment, but it often costs too much. In the case of stem cell treatments, isolating stem cells is very expensive. The cells we have engineered grow continuously in the laboratory, which brings down the price of treatments."
Lee's ongoing work indicates that this feature makes it feasible to repair tissue damage by injecting mesenchymal stem cells into skeletal muscle, a less invasive procedure than injecting the cells directly into an organ requiring repair. In a rodent model of heart failure, Lee and collaborators showed that intramuscular delivery of mesenchymal stem cells improved heart chamber function and reduced scar tissue formation.
Lee says his research team has generated two lines of MSC-Universal cells: a human line and a porcine line. Using the engineering technique he and colleagues developed, scientists can generate an MSC-Universal line from any donor sample of mesenchymal stem cells, he says. "I imagine that if these cells become routinely used in the future, one can generate a line from each ethnic group for each gender for people to choose from," Lee says.
UB has applied for a patent to protect Lee's discovery, and the university's Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach (UB STOR) is discussing potential license agreements with companies interested in commercializing MSC-Universal.
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