Most people don’t think of manufacturing when it comes to biology. But new bioengineering technologies to regenerate human tissue on a commercial scale will be critical to the next phase in stem cell research.
Stem cells serve as something of a feed stock we can manipulate and grow into a variety of cells. I still believe that stem cells and their derivatives are the key ingredients for tissue regeneration in many cases.
Now we are focusing on how to manufacture the cells efficiently, at reasonably low cost, and with the right processes so we can produce the volume of cells and tissues that patients will need.
There are considerable economic and technical challenges that come with manufacturing stem cells on a large scale. Some people could be helped tremendously by replacing diseased heart muscle cells, for example. But it takes billions of cells per patient to recreate those tissues. At the moment, we don’t have an efficient and cost-effective means of producing so many cells.
Stem cells are transformed into cells such as heart, nerve, or blood cells by signals in their surrounding environment.
Our lab works to determine how materials can make stem cells develop in ways that are productive and controllable. There can be thousands of possibilities. We're essentially trying to identify the Goldilocks conditions – what is just right for these cells to grow, differentiate and form human tissues and organs?
Initially it took us years to invent the technologies that can efficiently screen for materials that are just right to control stem cell behavior. Now that we have the screening technologies well established and developed, we can screen hundreds of materials in just days.
There are considerable economic and technical challenges that come with transforming stem cells on a large scale.
Some people could be helped tremendously by replacing diseased heart muscle cells, for example. But it takes billions of cells per patient to recreate those tissues. At the moment, we don’t have an efficient and cost-effective means of producing so many cells.
Once we identify what materials guide how a stem cell develops into a particular type of cell or tissue, we turn to the private sector. Working under a license agreement from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, companies are beginning to manufacture these materials on a huge scale. I see some really exciting possibilities.
The focus areas in my lab over the last 15 years have been on debilitating diseases in bone cartilage and muscle, as well as spinal cord injury and repair and disorders of the brain.
The hope is to eventually grow entire organs to replace diseased or damaged ones, but organs require a supply of blood vessels. We don’t have the technology to feed growing organs with blood vessels outside the body yet, so for now we are limited to generating tissues less than a millimeter thick.
Even so, there is still a lot of good we can achieve when it comes to discovering new medicines.
For example, we can generate stem cells from patients with autism disorders and then basically form a replica of brain tissue in a dish to compare with tissue from a patient without the disorder.
It’s conceivable that we could make progress toward a potential treatment for Rett syndrome, an autism-related brain disorder, within a year.