Stem cell research finds new answers

By Emily Ng

New advances in stem cell research have been made at the University of Calgary.

U of C professors Derrick Rancourt and Roman Krawetz have developed a bioreactor that produces stem cells efficiently.

Rancourt and Krawetz have collaborated since 2006, and in 2008 began actively pursuing new technology that would generate pluripotent stem cells in greater quantities. Their research was done in partnership with the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health.

Pluripotent stem cells have the ability to transform into different cell types and therefore make different tissues in the body. Rancourt and Krawetz have developed a bioreactor that generates these cells.

Stem cells have traditionally been grown on plastic plates. This practice has been time consuming and inefficient. However, according to the researchers, the bioreactor is able to produce stem cells 1,000 times quicker.

“If you imagine a dish the diameter of a cd, and you fill the whole bottom with skin cells, you would count 10 or 20. Whereas in the bioreactor, you would find thousands,” said Krawetz.

The bioreactor stirs the stem cells and keeps them in motion. They have found stirring the cells helps to form a large supply of the cells within the bioreactor.

The researchers have turned skin cells from mice into pluripotent stem cells, and they are currently studying human cells.

Traditional methods of stem cell production also use the cancer gene c-Myc, which increases the potential for tumour formation. This gene is no longer required with the bioreactor.

Other research groups who have grown stem cells on plastic plates without c-Myc have seen a reduction of 100 times in generated stem cells. However, Rancourt and Krawetz’s results show only a fivefold decrease.

Personalized medicine tailored to an individual patient could directly benefit from this stem cell technology and research.

“You can make stem cells, and then you can turn the stem cells into a tissue that would be the affected tissue in the body,” said Rancourt. “If somebody has a heart problem, we can make heart cells from these cells and use that as a source of material to do research to find out what’s the exact problem in the patient.”

Rancourt and Krawetz are still determining what causes the skin cells to become pluripotent stem cells in the bioreactor. They believe the dynamic environment of the bioreactor plays a part in this.

“Just like a microenvironmental evolution of stem cells, the ones that are not going to be good stem cells get killed off in the environment and the best pluripotent cells move forward,” said Krawetz.

Rancourt and Krawetz said several different faculties at the U of C have collaborated to develop the technology. The faculties of engineering, kinesiology and veterinary medicine were also involved in the course of the research.

“This work was built on the backs of other people from the U of C,” said Rancourt. “The McCaig Institute is really a great multidisciplinary environment that basically helped to sow the seeds of this project.”

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