Stem cell scientists are trying to better understand cancer and develop drugs that are essentially “tuneable.” The new project by Scottish researchers is based on a technique developed by Strathclyde University scientists in collaboration with a spinoff company. The idea is to develop drugs which can be customized to the patient’s individual needs.
The project focuses on cancer therapy using stem cells. Stem cells can be likened to a basic unit which can be modified into other specialized cells such as brain, skin, or bone. Until now, scientists have studied stem cells in the two dimensions of a flat petri dish in the laboratory. Now, they want to study them live and in 3D.
The 3D environment is a much more realistic replica of the real conditions in the human body, explains Duncan Graham, professor of chemistry. Stem cells do not survive for very long out of their usual environment. We want to create the kind of environment in which these cells can stay alive for longer periods of time.
This environment consists of a gel-like substance developed by Scottish firm Biogelx. Strathclyde University scientists have nicknamed it “gel for cells.” What makes the Biogelx gel different from the ones offered by other companies is the ability to tune it so that stem cells metamorphose into a specific type of tissue. The gel is composed of building blocks called peptides. These building blocks are biologically similar to the ones found in the human body but are synthetic and consistent.
The most important property of the gels is that they can be tuned to mimic a range of environments. This allows the scientists to offer a gel that mimics a softer brain environment as well as a stiffer bone environment depending on the customer’s requirement.
The researchers will use a technique known as Raman spectroscopy to create fingerprints of the individual molecules. The collaboration is also supported by CENSIS which will help find new applications for the Scottish findings.
According to Professor Graham, the research is focused on two key areas, one of which is understanding the differentiation of stem cells into specific types of cells. This will help scientists develop more accurate environments that faithfully mimic the human body. The ultimate goal is to replace body parts that are thus far irreplaceable.
The second key area that the research is focusing on is the response of cancer cells to different treatments. The ability to assess a patient’s response to therapy based on biopsy and drug screening will be a giant leap forward in cancer treatment. The hope is that this will help predict and reduce the debilitating effects of chemotherapy.
It will be a while, however, before science in the laboratory translates to standard therapy for cancer patients. But this is definitely an encouraging first step in identifying new treatments against a number of diseases.