Developing novel gels to improve stem cell research
A range of novel gels that will improve the quality, storage, transportation and reliability of stem cells is being developed by a team of polymer chemists and biologists at the University of Sheffield in collaboration with the global transformational medical technologies’ firm, GE Healthcare, and GEO Specialty Chemicals.
Just six months into the three-year Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funded project, the Sheffield team have already made a number of discoveries with the potential to transform human stem cell research and aid the development of the next generation of healthcare technologies for a wide range of diseases and conditions.
“Human pluripotent stem cells offer tremendous possibilities for combating a range of medical conditions and diseases,” says Professor Steve Armes, Director of the Polymer Centre and the Principal Investigator on the project.
“However, a major challenge is to optimise stem cell manufacture with excellent reproducibility to meet the requirements of cell biologists, the biotech industry and clinicians. Well-defined and consistent conditions for long-term stem cell culture, storage and the easy harvesting of stem cells are essential to success.”
Armes who is a fellow of the Royal Society has more than 500 published papers to his name, and 26,000 citations, believes the fundamental scientific research he and his interdisciplinary team are conducting will “play an important role in delivering affordable healthcare solutions for patients over the next 10-50 years.”
“Human stem cells are at the forefront of biomedical research and clearly have enormous therapeutic potential for diabetes, age-related blindness, spinal cord injuries and Parkinson’s disease,” he added.
While Armes and his chemistry colleagues have been able to develop the novel polymer gels, the project’s success is built on close collaboration with Professor Harry Moore, co-director of the Centre for Cell Biology in Sheffield, whose team also co-ordinate the International Stem Cell Initiative, a global consortium of laboratories that define standards in this field.
“Chemists and biologists talk very different languages,” says Armes. “But we have overcome the communication barrier and the team works really well together.”
Human pluripotent stem cells offer tremendous possibilities for combating a range of medical conditions and diseases.
Professor Steve Armes, Director of the Polymer Centre
Dr. Nick Warren, a post-doctoral chemist, has produced the long worm-like strands that interact to form a soft, freestanding aqueous gel. This highly biocompatible, easily sterilised by filtration and de-gels reversibly on cooling below ambient temperature. Human embryonic stem cells immersed in such gels can survive for up to 14 days at 37oC. Dr. Irene Canton, a biochemist working with Moore, has found that human embryonic stem cells gradually ‘go to sleep’ when immersed in the gel, and slowly ‘wake up’ when removed from the gel.
“Our worm gel is a convenient and inexpensive medium for the long-term storage of pluripotent human stem cells. It could potentially replace existing unsatisfactory animal-derived products and enable the acceleration of stem cell biology research, ultimately leading to new clinical therapies,” Armes said.
Although he is mainly focused on basic research, Prof. Armes is equally passionate about technology transfer – he is a named inventor on more than 20 patents, including a commercially successful anti-reflective coating for solar panels. His nanoparticle research has also inspired the development of dirt-shedding paints on the external facades of buildings.
Perhaps this ability to make the link between fundamental and applied science can be traced back to his school days? “I was fortunate to be taught by a very good Chemistry teacher, Mr. Bates, who had worked for an industrial textiles company before going into education,’ he said. “It was – and probably still is – unusual for teachers to have some industrial experience. While I don’t think that Health and Safety regulations would allow school teachers to inspire young students in quite the same way nowadays, he allowed me to take various chemicals from his chemistry stores to do lots of experiments in my bedroom, including making stink bombs, chemically-propelled rockets and loud bangs. This experience inspired me to consider Chemistry as a career.”
Four decades later, the promising school student looks like he could be making a very different kind of bang in the world of chemistry and medicine using a potent mix of polymer science and reproductive biology.