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Scientists ‘squeeze’ cells into stem cells


A new method of turning cells into stem cells by ‘squeezing’ them has been developed by scientists at Swiss research university Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

This revolutionary method, which uses a specially-developed gel that boosts the ability of regular cells to revert into stem cells by ‘squeezing’ them into shape, will open the door for large-scale production of stem cells for medical purposes.

Stem cells are now at the cutting edge of science; they can transform into cells of different organs, providing a new way of treating both injuries and diseases like diabetes and Parkinson’s. Producing the right kind of stem cells in a standardised manner remains a significant challenge, but the new technique could easily be scaled up to produce stem cells for various uses on an industrial scale.

Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which come from mature adult cells and can be genetically reprogrammed to behave like stem cells are of particular interest to scientists.

There have been numerous attempts to design a standardised method of generating iPSCs, but even the most successful were not very effective, especially on a large scale.

A big issue with previous methods is the use of the two-dimensional environment of a Petri dish or cell culture flask, whereas cells exist in a three-dimensional environment in the human body.

The new method mimics this by using a three-dimensional cell culture system; regular cells are placed in a gel containing regular growth nutrients, which simulate the three-dimensional environment of living tissue.

Researchers found that by altering the density or consistency of the gel and exerting different forces on the cells – or ‘squeezing them’ – they could reprogram the cells faster and more efficiently than current methods allow.

This phenomenon is not yet entirely understood, but Professor Matthias Lutolf of the Laboratory of Stem Cell Bioengineering (LSCB) believes each cell may have a ‘sweet spot’ of chemical and physical factors that provides the most efficient way of transforming it.

The greater impact of the research is that it could be used to produce stem cells on an industrial scale, which the LSCB will look into, but it will focus on understanding the results and finding the ‘sweet spots’ of other cell types.

Stem cells have potentially wide-ranging medical benefits as they can replace or repair cells that have stopped working due to damage or disease. However, a perfect stem cell match is required to prevent the body rejecting them and subsequently a lifetime of taking anti-rejection drugs. The best stem cells are those harvested and stored from baby teeth that are naturally shed, as they will not have deteriorated due to aging or pollutants.