Scientists in the Bhatia lab at McMaster University's Stem Cell and Cancer Institute (SCC-RI) have uncovered a solution to a major roadblock in unlocking the potential of human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs), the cells that hold the potential to become any cell type in the body.
In a study published this week in Cell Reports, the team identified unique properties of hPSCs that hold them back from striking a necessary balance between stem cell growth, or self-renewal, and differentiating into the specialized cell types needed for biomedical research.
The team found that when these cells are in a state where the cells are able to grow or self-renew well their ability to differentiate is hindered. This is problematic because in order for these cells to be useful for researchers, they need to be able to do both: grow well so there are enough cells to study and differentiate into the mature, tissue-specific cells that facilitate the exploration of diseases and potential therapies.
The researchers are committed to working with human cells to ensure their studies are relevant to people who could potentially benefit from stem cell treatments, people living with diseases with limited medical options.
"What we found is that self-renewal and differentiation in hPSCs is balanced on a fulcrum where one is elevated, the other goes down and vice versa," explained Mick Bhatia, director of the SCC-RI and a professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences.
The SCC-RI team found that one control of this imbalance could be targeted and corrected.
Given the SCC-RI's previous experience in drug screening and discovery, they focused their efforts on drug control of hPSCs. They were successful in identifying several compounds that effectively targeted this imbalance and allowed robust growth of these cells but kept them in a state where they could also differentiate.
Dr. Bhatia described it as achieving the "best of both worlds."
These findings are significant because they provide new information about how hPSCs work and how the scientists can create better disease models and personalized therapies.
"With this best case scenario in place, there are several new disease models we can now tackle that were just too difficult before," he said.
This study was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.