While most students here at UW-Madison are swamped with exams and homework, stem cell researchers across campus have been letting out resounding cheers of success. Back in 2012, the stem cell research labs in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery were just beginning to take off. These four labs, making up the Bionanocomposite Tissue Engineering Scaffolds (BIONATES) department, were chock full of multi-disciplinary expertise, passion and ambition. As it turns out, their aspirations were not too far off. In fact, the department has taken one massive leap forward.
The significance of forward progress with stem cells is due mainly to the vast variety of potential uses. The key to the utility of embryonic stem cells is that they are pluripotent; they are blank slates that can become any type of cell in the body. This could lead to the development of treatments for many of the diseases and problems that plague us; however, the cells are not easy to produce and control.
In order to avoid ethical pitfalls, it has become common practice to use human-induced pluripotent (iPS) cells. These are adult cells that are made to mimic naturally pluripotent cells. The BIONATES labs have been working diligently to find a better way to produce iPS stem cells and push them to become neural cells. The previous method used mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs) to culture the cells, but this process required certain expertise, and the results are not always consistent. The benefits of an easy-to-use, highly repeatable method were obvious.
The Ashton lab is led by Randolph Ashton, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and was one of the four BIONATES labs involved. Ashton’s lab in particular led the effort for the development of a new procedure. Ashton and Ethan Lippmann, a postdoctoral fellow working in the Ashton lab, co-authored a paper on the use of a new chemical process with an altered culture medium. The process is exactly what stem cell researchers have wished for, providing an easy, fast and consistent way to produce iPS stem cells and force them to become neural cells with 100% certainty. “You can buy everything you need off the shelf, so if people want to do this in their own labs, they don’t have to learn some crazy new expertise. They can read the protocol, they can buy everything, and they can do it,” Lippmann says. This means that both researchers and people working in industry will be able to produce the cells with equal success.
Stem cells are notorious for both their ethical issues and difficulty of production. The creation of IPS cells has addressed the ethical concerns, and this process, which lessens the difficulty, means that there are few excuses holding back stem cell applications in medicine.
Most stem cell researchers at UW-Madison have already begun using this process. Lippmann is now looking for ways to further direct these neural stem cells to different phenotypes. Each different phenotype has a different purpose, and by utilizing certain inputs, useful cells can be developed for desired applications.
The rest of the researchers at UW-Madison are still transitioning, some reluctant to leave old methods behind. “I think we’ll start to see a push on this campus for people to adopt this methodology,” Lippmann says. The hope is that, in time, the cultural stigma around stem cells in the rest of the nation will decrease, and this method will become standard for research. Stem cell science will only see increases in productivity, and with the current momentum of the BIONATES labs, who knows what they will discover next? UW-Madison students may feel stuck in never-ending studies, but stem cell research is moving full-speed ahead.