Breakthrough in scaling up life-changing stem cell production

Research teams at the University of Nottingham, Uppsala University and GE Healthcare in Sweden have discovered a new method that could solve the big problem of the large-scale stem cell production required to fully realize the potential of these remarkable cells for understanding and treating disease.

Human pluripotent stem cells are undifferentiated and possess the unique potential to differentiate into all the different cell types of the body. With applications in disease modeling, drug screening, regenerative medicine and tissue engineering, there is an enormous demand for these cells, which will only grow as clinical applications and the pharmaceutical industry increase the use of these cells.

However, large-scale production of stem cells is not currently feasible because available culture methods are either too expensive, or rely on materials that are not be safe for clinical use in humans, such as animal-based proteins.

In this new publication, which appeared on Wednesday July 13 2016 in Nature Communications, a collaborative team that consisted of researchers from The University of Nottingham’s Wolfson Centre for Stem Cells, Tissue Engineering and Modelling, Uppsala University and GE Healthcare have identified an improved method for human stem cell culture that, at least in principle, provide a faster and cheaper way for grow stem cells for large-scale industrial production.

The project had its genesis at Uppsala University in Sweden, and the first author, Dr Sara Pijuan-Galitó, is now continuing her work as a Swedish Research Council Research Fellow at Nottingham. Sara said: “By using a protein derived from human blood called Inter-alpha inhibitor, we have grown human pluripotent stem cells in a minimal medium without the need for costly and time-consuming biological substrates. Inter-alpha inhibitor is found in human blood at high concentrations, and is currently a by-product of standard drug purification schemes.

“The protein can make stem cells attach on unmodified tissue culture plastic, and improve survival of the stem cells in harsh conditions. It is the first stem cell culture method that does not require a pre-treated biological substrate for attachment, and therefore, is more cost and time-efficient and paves the way for easier and cheaper large-scale production.”

Lead supervisor Dr Cecilia Annerén, who has a joint position at Uppsala University and at GE Healthcare in Uppsala, said: “As coating is a time-consuming step and adds cost to human stem cell culture, this new method has the potential to save time and money in large-scale and high-throughput cultures, and be highly valuable for both basic research and commercial applications.”

Co-author on the paper Dr Cathy Merry added: “We now intend to combine Inter-alpha inhibitor protein with our innovative hydrogel technology to improve on current methods to control cell differentiation and apply it to disease modelling. This will help research into many diseases but our focus is on understanding rare conditions like Multiple Osteochondroma (an inherited disease associated with painful lumps developing on bones) at the cellular level. Our aim is to replicate the three-dimensional environments that cells experience in the body so that our lab-bench biology is more accurate in modelling diseases.”

Dr Sara Pijuan-Galitó’s next task is to combine the Inter-alpha inhibitor with improved synthetic polymers in collaboration with other regenerative medicine pioneers at the University, Professor Morgan Alexander and Professor Chris Denning. This team plans to further improve current human stem cell culture methods. Their goal is to design an economical and safe method that can be easily translated to large-scale production and deliver the billions of cells necessary to start taking cellular therapeutics to individual patients.