As a former stem cell scientist turned science communicator, I love answering science questions no matter how complicated or bizarre. The other day my friend asked me about what CRISPR was and how scientists were using it on stem cells to help people. This got me thinking that it would be cool to do a blog on some of the latest stem cell technologies that are changing the way we do science and ultimately how we treat patients.
So in the spirit of sharing knowledge and also giving you some interesting conversation points at your next dinner party, here are five stem cell technologies that I think are pretty awesome. (As a disclaimer: this isn’t a top 5 list. I picked a few recently published studies that I thought were worth mentioning.)
1) Need a body part? Let me print that for you.
Scientists from Wake Forest University have developed technology to make custom-made living body parts by 3D-printing stem cells onto biodegradable scaffolds. The stem cells are printed in a hydrogel solution using a special 3D printer they call ITOP. This printer makes it possible for the printed stem cells to develop into life-sized tissues and organs that have built-in microchannels that allow blood, oxygen and other nutrients to flow through. Using the ITOP technology, the team was able to generate segments of jawbone, an ear, and muscle tissue. We wrote a blog about this fascinating technology, so check it out if you’re thirsty for more details.
2) Bio-bots controlled by light
When you think robots, you think machines and metal. But what if the robot was made out of human cells? Crazy? Not even. Scientists from the University of Illinois have made what they called “bio-bots” or tiny machines “powered by biological components.” They printed muscle cells onto flexible skeletons in the shape of rings (see GIF). The muscle cells are engineered to have light sensitive switches, so when they are exposed to light, they contract like normal muscles do. The beauty of bio-bots is that they “can sense, process, and respond to dynamic environmental signals in real time, enabling a variety of applications.” Some of these applications could include bio-bots made up of other types of tissue (brain, heart, etc.) and general use for disease research. Story credit goes to Megan Thielking’s Morning Rounds for STATnews.
3) New way to track stem cells using MRI
Scientists from the UC San Diego School of Medicine have developed a new way to track cells in the body using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In a CIRM-funded study, the scientists made a new Fluorine-based chemical tracer that is taken in by the cells of interest. When these cells are imaged with MRI, the tracer gives off a bright and easily detectable signal. According to MNT news who covered the story, “the work is expected to enhance the progress of treatments involving stem cells and immune cells, as it will give researchers a clear picture of how cells behave after being introduced to the body.”
4) Engineering cells to fight cancer
Genomic modification of human stem cells by gene editing methods such as CRISPR is not a novel concept, but the technology continues to evolve at record pace and is worth mentioning. You can think of CRISPR as molecular scissors that can remove disease-causing mutations in a person’s DNA. Scientists can repair genetic mutations in human stem cells and other cell types and then use these repaired cells to replace diseased or damaged tissue or to perform therapeutic functions in patients. An article by Antonio Regalado at MIT Technology Review nicely summarizes how genetically engineered immune cells are saving the lives of cancer patients. These immune cells are engineered to recognize cancer cells (which are normally expert at evading the immune system) and when they are transplanted into cancer patients, they attack and kill off the cancer pretty effectively.
5) One day, stem cells will help the blind see
Blindness is a big problem and stem cells are considered a promising therapeutic strategy for restoring sight in patients suffering from diseases of blindness. We covered two recent discoveries in last week’s round-up, but it never hurts to mention them again. One study from UC San Diego Health treated children suffering from cataracts. They removed the cataracts and stimulated the native stem cells in their eyes to produce new lens tissue that was able to improve their vision. The other study generated different eye parts in a dish using reprogrammed human induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells. They generated corneas from iPS cells and transplanted them into blind rabbits and were successful in restoring their vision. Hopefully soon stem cell technologies will advance through the clinic and provide new treatments to cure patients who’ve lost their sight.