Scientists at the University of Nottingham say they have discovered the first fully synthetic substrate with potential to grow billions of stem cells. Their study (“Discovery of a Novel Polymer for Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Expansion and Multilineage Differentiation”), published in Advanced Materials, could forge the way for the creation of stem cell factories, i.e., the mass production of human embryonic (pluripotent) stem cells.

The research project was led by Morgan Alexander, Ph.D., professor of biomedical surfaces in the school of pharmacy, and Chris Denning, Ph.D., professor of stem cell biology in the school of medicine. The material could provide an off-the-shelf product for clinical use in the treatment of the heart, liver, and brain, according to the scientists.

Dr. Alexander, director of the interface and surface analysis center, and his team have been searching for polymers on which human pluripotent stem cells can be grown and differentiated billions at a time.

“We [applied] a high-throughput materials discovery approach to identify a novel polymer for hPSC culture using microarray screening of an unprecedented chemical space (141 monomers, polymerized alone and mixed to form 909 unique polymers, tested in 4356 individual assays),” wrote the investigators. “This identified the first synthetic polymeric substrate that achieves both pluripotent hPSC expansion (in the commercially available culture media, StemPro and mTeSR1) and subsequent multilineage differentiation into representatives of the three germ layers, namely cardiomyocytes, hepatocyte-like cells, and neural progenitors.”

The research team found that this man-made material was free from possible contamination and batch variability, added Dr. Alexander.

“The possibilities for regenerative medicine are still being researched in the form of clinical trials,” he said. “What we are doing here is paving the way for the manufacture of stem cells in large numbers when those therapies are proved to be safe and effective.”

Dr. Denning, whose field is in cardiac stem cell research, pointed out that the field of regenerative medicine has snowballed in the last five years and over the coming five years a lot more patients will be receiving stem cell treatments.

“Clinical trials are still in the very early stages,” he said. “However, with this kind of product, if we can get it commercialized and validated by the regulators it could be helping patients in two to three years.”

Conditions of the heart, liver and brain are all under investigation as possible new stem cell treatments. People are already receiving stem cells derived eye cells for eye disorders.
These new materials have shown great promise in the laboratory. The research team now needs a commercial partner to test this lab based discovery on an industrial scale.