Scientists improve on lab stem cells

Scientists improve on lab stem cells
Sunday, Dec 08, 2013
The Straits Times
By Feng Zengkun

Scientists in Singapore have come up with an improved form of laboratory stem cells that can change into cells of different body parts such as the liver, brain, kidney, pancreas and eye.

Their findings could lead to better treatment for diseases and even help doctors to replace worn-out organs in future.

The team was led by Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS). Its research focused on stem cells found in human embryos that can transform into other cells.

Traditionally, scientists have extracted the stem cells, cultured or reproduced them in the laboratory, and then changed them into the other cells.

But the process of extracting the stem cells changes them, so the lab cells may not be exact matches of those in embryos.

This means that the liver, heart and other cells produced from the laboratory stem cells may also not be exact matches of those found in humans.

The A*Star team found a way to change the laboratory stem cells to more closely match those found in embryos.

They used data from two major studies published earlier this year by the Peking University in China and University of California, Los Angeles. These set out for the first time the genetic state of the stem cells while they are still in embryos.

Previously, scientists could only test the effectiveness of the liver, heart and other cells produced with the laboratory stem cells.

Based on this new data, the A*Star team tried more than 30 combinations of chemical compounds in varying doses on the laboratory stem cells, to try to get them to become more like cells in embryos. Eventually they hit upon a closer match.

The team's next step is to find more efficient ways to change the improved lab stem cells into heart, liver and other cells. They also want to see how closely these changed cells match those found in people.

For the next two years, they plan to focus on liver cells. GIS executive director Ng Huck Hui said: "The liver is a major organ for processing drugs, so liver cells are in great demand by pharmaceutical companies for drug testing."

The team members also plan to work with hospitals and other research institutes in future.

Prof Ng stressed that no human embryos were harmed in the research. The team used human stem cells created in a United States laboratory. Their work was published in science journal Cell Stem Cell Thursday.

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