Immortal Mesenchymal Stem Cells for Therapies

University of Buffalo researchers have engineered adult stem cells that grow continuously in culture. This discovery could aid in the development of cost-effective treatments for diseases including heart disease, diabetes, immune disorders and neurodegenerative diseases. The University of Buffalo researchers called these new cell lines “MSC Universal.” They made them by genetically engineering mesenchymal stem cells, which are found in bone marrow and many other tissues, and can be transformed into bone, cartilage, fat, beta-pancreatic islet cells, and other cell types as well. This breakthrough might overcome a significant hurdle to progress in the field of regenerative medicine – the difficulty of growing adult stem cells for clinical applications.

Mesenchymal stem cells have a limited life span in laboratory cultures. Therefore, scientists and clinicians who use such cells in their research and treatments must continuously obtain fresh samples from bone marrow donors. This process is expensive and time-consuming, and mesenchymal stem cells from various donors can vary wildly in their performance. The cells modified by University of Buffalo researchers show no signs of aging in culture. Besides that, they appear to have the same characteristics as regular mesenchymal stem cells, and that includes their ability to confer therapeutic benefits to animals that have heart disease. Despite their propensity to proliferate in the laboratory, the MSC-Universal cells do not form tumors in animal tests.

Techung Lee, leader of the project and associate professor of biochemistry and biomedical engineering in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Buffalo said: “Our stem cell research is application-driven.” Lee continued: “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.” The university has also applied for a patent for Lee’s discovery.

Lee’s work has shown that mesenchymal stem cells can repair damaged tissues. By injecting mesenchymal stem cells into skeletal muscle, which is a less invasive procedure than injecting the cells directly into an organ requiring repair, Lee and his collaborators showed that intramuscular delivery of mesenchymal stem cells improved heart chamber function and reduced scar tissue formation in animals with failing hearts. Lee says his research team has generated two lines of MSC-Universal cells: a human line and a porcine (pig) line. By using the engineering technique he and colleagues developed, scientists can generate an MSC-Universal line from any donor sample of mesenchymal stem cells. Lee said: 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.”

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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).