Media Releases

Predicting the fate of stem cells

October 22, 2013

Technique has potential use in regenerative medicine and drug development

TORONTO, ON – Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to researchers have devel­oped a method that can rapid­ly screen human stem cells and bet­ter con­trol what they will turn into. The tech­nol­o­gy could have poten­tial use in regen­er­a­tive med­i­cine and drug devel­op­ment. Find­ings are pub­lished in this week’s issue of the jour­nal Nature Meth­ods.

“The work allows for a bet­ter under­stand­ing of how to turn stem cells into clin­i­cal­ly use­ful cell types more effi­cient­ly,” accord­ing to Emanuel Nazareth, a PhD stu­dent at the Insti­tute of Bio­ma­te­ri­als & Bio­med­ical Engi­neer­ing (IBBME) at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to. The research comes out of the lab of Pro­fes­sor Peter Zand­stra, Cana­da Research Chair in Bio­engi­neer­ing at U of T.

The researchers used human pluripo­tent stem cells (hPSC), cells which have the poten­tial to dif­fer­en­ti­ate and even­tu­al­ly become any type of cell in the body. But the key to get­ting stem cells to grow into spe­cif­ic types of cells, such as skin cells or heart tis­sue, is to grow them in the right envi­ron­ment in cul­ture, and there have been chal­lenges in get­ting those envi­ron­ments (which vary for dif­fer­ent types of stem cells) just right, Nazareth said.

The researchers devel­oped a high-through­put plat­form, which uses robot­ics and automa­tion to test many com­pounds or drugs at once, with con­trol­lable envi­ron­ments to screen hPSCs in. With it, they can con­trol the size of the stem cell colony, the den­si­ty of cells, and oth­er para­me­ters in order to bet­ter study char­ac­ter­is­tics of the cells as they dif­fer­en­ti­ate or turn into oth­er cell types. Stud­ies were done using stem cells in micro-envi­ron­ments opti­mized for screen­ing and observ­ing how they behaved when chem­i­cal changes were intro­duced.

It was found that two spe­cif­ic pro­teins with­in stem cells, Oct4 and Sox2, can be used to track the four major ear­ly cell fate types that stem cells can turn into, allow­ing four screens to be per­formed at once.

“One of the most frus­trat­ing chal­lenges is that we have dif­fer­ent research pro­to­cols for dif­fer­ent cell types. But as it turns out, very often those pro­to­cols don’t work across many dif­fer­ent cell lines,” Nazareth said.

The work also pro­vides a way to study dif­fer­ences across cell lines that can be used to pre­dict cer­tain genet­ic infor­ma­tion, such as abnor­mal chro­mo­somes. What’s more, these pre­dic­tions can be done in a frac­tion of the time com­pared to oth­er exist­ing tech­niques, and for a sub­stan­tial­ly low­er cost com­pared to oth­er test­ing and screen­ing meth­ods.

“We antic­i­pate this tech­nol­o­gy will under­pin new strate­gies to iden­ti­fy cell fate con­trol mol­e­cules, or even drugs, for a num­ber of dif­fer­ent stem cell types,” Zand­stra said.

As a drug screen­ing tech­nol­o­gy “it’s a dra­mat­ic improve­ment over its pre­de­ces­sors,” said Nazareth. He notes that in some cas­es, the new tech­nol­o­gy can drop test­ing time from up to a month to a mere two days.

Pro­fes­sor Peter Zand­stra was award­ed the 2013 Till & McCul­loch Award in recog­ni­tion of this con­tri­bu­tion to glob­al stem cell research.

About IBBME:

The Insti­tute of Bio­ma­te­ri­als & Bio­med­ical Engi­neer­ing (IBBME) is an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary unit allow­ing a remark­able degree of inte­gra­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion across three Fac­ul­ties at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to: Applied Sci­ence & Engi­neer­ing, Den­tistry and Med­i­cine. The Insti­tute pur­sues research in four areas: neur­al, sen­so­ry sys­tems and reha­bil­i­ta­tion engi­neer­ing; bio­ma­te­ri­als, tis­sue engi­neer­ing and regen­er­a­tive med­i­cine; mol­e­c­u­lar imag­ing and bio­med­ical nan­otech­nol­o­gy; and, med­ical devices and clin­i­cal tech­nolo­gies.


For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

Erin Vol­lick
Senior Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Media & Alum­ni Rela­tions Offi­cer
Tel: 416–946-8019