Stem cell stories that caught our eye: Two ways to build better scaffolds, sepsis and the business side of therapies

Here are some stem cell stories that caught our eye this past week. Some are groundbreaking science, others are of personal interest to us, and still others are just fun.

Customized homes for stem cells. Some of the most exciting team work in stem cell science today involves pulling in chemists and engineers to design better hydrogels or other scaffolds used to hold stem cells in place and direct their maturation into a desired tissue. That physical environment dictates much of a stem cell’s decision on what adult cell type to become.

A team at Texas A&M University developed a type of magnetic nanoparticle that when added to a collagen hydrogel in various quantities determines how hard the material becomes.  One type of stem cell, for example, grown in a very hard environment tends to become bone and in a softer environment becomes cartilage or connective tissue.

 “By adding a minute concentration of nanoparticles, we can get a drastic increase or decrease in the physical properties of the hydrogel,” said Akhilesh Gaharwar, a biomedical engineer on the team. “By changing the size and concentration of the nanoparticles, we can get hydrogels that range from one kilopascal to 200 kilopascals,” he added, referring to a measure of strength of a material.

The researchers published their work in ACS Nano and the web site posted the university’s press release.

Jaiswal et al. ACS Nano

Jaiswal et al. ACS Nano


A home with better food.  When designing scaffolds for stem cells, in addition to toughness researchers also need to worry about getting nutrients to the stem cell seeded on the material. This has tended to limit the thickness of such materials and the resulting repair tissues. Researchers working at North Carolina State University and the University of Missouri found a possible solution. It’s a bit like felt—that soft yet tough fabric many of us used in art classes in grade school.

They spun polymer fibers covered in projections similar to the gill-like underside of many mushrooms. They then knit the fibers into loose networks using a process like the carding done to turn wool into felt. The researchers assert that the gills enhance the movement of nutrients and oxygen throughout the structure, as well as the removal of cellular waste.

 “Future work to validate this hypothesis is needed,” said Elizabeth Loboa of NC State, “but if it is true, it may offer strategies for full thickness tissue engineering scaffold that are not limited to cell growth on the surface.”

The magazine MaterialsToday published an online article on the work.


Stem cells for what killed Patty Duke.  For those of us who grew up with The Patty Duke Show, and then came of age at the time of Valley of the Dolls, the premature death of Patty Duke this week was a bit a shock; she was only 69. News coverage talked a lot about an infection from a ruptured intestine, but it tended to ignore the deadly culprit in sepsis, when the infection over activates our immune system.

A group of researchers at Ottawa Hospital in Canada announced this week that they had begun a clinical trial using stem cells to treat sepsis. With only a casual knowledge of stem cells using them for infection may not make sense.  But one type of stem cell, mesenchymal stem cells, is actually very good at regulating the immune system and may be effective in tamping down that killer reaction in sepsis. This trial should at least be a first step in verifying if that is true.

Ontario man Charles Bernique was injected with 30 million mesenchymal stem cells after developing sepsis, after which he was restored to full health. Sepsis can arise from infection from bacterium, viruses or fungus and is fatal in 20 to 40 per cent of cases.

Charles Bernique was injected  mesenchymal stem cells after developing sepsis, after which he fully recovered. (Justin Tang, Canadian Press)

The news agency The Canadian Press wrote an article about the study and The Star ran the story. It includes an anecdote of a patient treated on the trial who survived. At this point that is still just an anecdote. We don’t know if he would have recovered on his own with the help of antibiotics, but the odds were clearly against him.


Stem cell scientist as business person.  Our field needs more people like Crystal Ruff. After completing her PhD in regenerative neuroscience at University College London, she went on to study for a masters of business at London Business School.

She is featured in an article on the website Poets and Quants, which seems to prosper based on reviewing and analyzing the world’s business schools. The article is a little sketchy when it comes to Ruff’s science, but you have to love her belief that many of the issues around making enough stem cells and getting them delivered to patients when they need them are more about business than science. She says only a business approach can realize the full revolutionary potential of stem cell science

Crystal Ruff

Crystal Ruff (Poets and Quants)

“If you imagine the days with snail mail and big telephones and stuff, think about how the internet completely changed the way we communicate. I can send 100 emails in a day, which is completely different from the mail system. And regenerative medicine is like that.”

This all sounds very familiar around CIRM these days, having just completed a new strategic plan built around well-defined goals and solid business principals.

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