May. 24, 2012

(Calgary, Alberta) May 24, 2012…Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions scientists have transformed the landscape of stem cell research for scientists everywhere. Derrick Rancourt, PhD, and Roman Krawetz, PhD, have perfected a new bioreactor technology that allows them to make millions of pluripotent stem cells much more quickly than ever before. “The even better news is, we made these stem cells without introducing the cancer gene at all,” says Rancourt, co-author of the research, published in the May issue of the prestigious journal: Nature Methods. “These stem cells are an outstanding alternative to embryonic stem cells.”

Pluripotent stem cells come from two main sources: either from embryos, or from adult cells that have been reprogrammed by scientists. In order to reprogram adult cells into stem cells, scientists have a standard protocol in which they “turn on” four specific genes. The result is induced pluripotent stem cells – also known as iPS cells. These cells can become any kind of cell in the body – heart, brain, cartilage, and bone.

However, in the five years since scientists first discovered iPS cells, two major limitations have emerged: it usually takes one million adult cells to make ONE stem cell, and, the resulting stem cells are much more likely to cause cancer.

“Scientists can make a whole mouse from iPS cells,” says Roman Krawetz, PhD, a research assistant professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Calgary, and a member of the AIHS Osteoarthritis Team. “The challenge they face is, within two years, the mouse gets cancer.”

Rancourt’s team has found a way around those challenges. “We are the first team to prove that we can use the bioreactor to efficiently make stem cells that then become mice without cancer,” says Krawetz. The team creates these “low risk” stem cells by cultivating adult cells without the cancer gene “cMyc”. The bioreactor is a special environment, similar to a small, slow-moving blender, in which the cells are fed nutrients (sugar, protein and fat), and oxygen in a carefully controlled, sealed flask.

“In this new, finely tuned bioreactor, we are able to make 10 million “safe” stem cells from 800,000 adult cells in 12 days,” says Rancourt, a professor at the University of Calgary and deputy director of the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health.

“Now that we can generate safe stem cells in the millions, we are putting human cells into our bioreactors with a focus on designing new treatments for arthritis,” says Rancourt. “We can use these cells to make bone and cartilage. Currently, we are working with our colleagues in biomedical engineering, and with industry, to shift our focus into regenerative medicine.”

This work is funded by Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Arthritis Society.

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