In 1956, Dr. Donnal Thomas did something incredible: he transferred the bone marrow of a healthy child to that child’s identical twin, who was suffering from leukaemia.
Two years later, French immunologist Dr. Jean Dausset discovered the role that human leukocyte antigens play in the body’s immune response, confirming the need for a “donor match.” In 1975, the first successful bone marrow transplant between unrelated patients occurred.
Today, doctors use bone marrow transplants to treat a variety of diseases. Each year, the procedure saves thousands of lives.
When we talk about bone marrow transplants, however, we’re really talking about transplanting stem cells– haematopoietic stem cells to be exact– which form red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
What Is Stem Cell Research?
Stem cells are the beginning of everything. They’re the raw material that produce all the different cells in our bodies. Unlike most of our cells, stem cells aren’t specialised. They don’t perform the daily tasks that help the body function. Instead, they only become active when the body needs to produce more stem cells or to create more of our other specialised cells.
Every organ and tissue has resident tissue-specific stem cells that have the potential to generate more specialised cells. For instance, like haematopoietic stem cells, mesenchymal stem cells found in bone marrow, fat, and umbilical cord blood can create bone, cartilage, muscle, and fat cells.
The hope behind stem cell replacement therapies is that doctors can harness stem cells’ ability to become these more specialised cells and use them to replace cells and tissues that have been damaged or lost from injury and disease. In stem cell research, we try to determine what replacement cells are needed to restore specific tissue function and then identify the ways in which we can help those tissue-specific stem cells turn into those specialised cell types.
Cell culturing is a vital part of this research because while all tissues have stem cells, they don’t have a huge number of them. With culturing, we can take some of those cells and create more cells to use in either research or treatment. By placing these cells in culture, we can also learn more about how stem cells grow into specialised cells and how to best apply them in treatments for various diseases.
The Problem with Traditional Cell Culturing Methods
When culturing cells, scientists have to monitor them daily. Cells need a constant flow of certain nutrients– such as glucose, reduced oxygen concentrations, amino acids, and more– to grow.
As it’s currently being practised, cell culturing doesn’t create an ideal growth environment for stem cells, and it’s also a labour intensive task for scientists because it requires continual monitoring and extremely careful handling.
Scientists put cells in a plastic plate (they no longer do everything in glass which is what in vitro actually means), and then they regularly apply a nutrient solution to the dish to feed the cells.
The problem with this process is that it doesn’t mimic the human body because it’s a static rather than dynamic environment. Once they apply a solution, scientists put the cell back into the incubator for a set period of time. However, as cells continue to grow, this results in an ever increasing rate of nutrient depletion and that depletion could cause the stem cells to die or change prematurely into a specialised cell type.
The Potential Impact of Fertilis’s Micro-IVF Device on Stem Cell Research
Fertilis’s micro-IVF device completely changes embryologists’s cell culturing methods, bringing a lot of utility to stem cell research as a result.
The Fertilis micro-IVF system responds to cell development, so scientists can base decisions on what the cells need, controlling the media by the device’s time lapse monitoring rather than making decisions based on anticipated run times.
This level of control enables us to dynamically manipulate the environment over a period of hours so that we ensure that the stem cells are expanding in ways that meet our research objectives.
Culturing in a dynamic environment improves the quality of the cells that we hope to use in stem cell replacement therapies, and it helps prevent prematurely pushing cells into specialised states, making stem cell research easier to replicate.
However, we’re still in the very early stages of understanding how to apply stem cells for regenerative medicine or in transplantation to treat these issues. Currently, one of the greatest barriers is immunological rejection. Decades of research into bone marrow transplants means that scientists have gained a lot of knowledge about the safety of transplanting hematopoietic stem cells. However, we don’t know as much about the safety and efficacy of other stem cell types, and we’re still learning about how they’ll react after transplantation. We do know that how we grow them can impact whether they might be rejected by the body.
Stem cells have the potential to treat a vast array of injuries, and diseases. With regenerative therapies, we could treat injuries such as spinal cord damage and disease such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. However, before we reach the application and treatment stage, we need to learn more about stem cells and make our research replicable and reproducible. Fertilis’s micro-IVF device could help us with that.