Photo courtesy of Yossi Zamir/Flash90.
Mass-market manufacture of stem cells is closer than ever after a breakthrough by researchers from Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Medical Center has announced a breakthrough in methods for cultivating embryonic stem cells that enables the next step in the development of stem cell therapy, and the world has taken notice.

Citing medical breakthroughs in the scientific community can be irresponsible. Such announcements can raise expectations and false hopes for cures that are plausible only decades in the future, or even impossible to attain.

However, Hadassah’s advance, as the scientists report in the prestigious journal Nature Biotechnology, takes stem cell researchers closer to realizing their dream of manufacturing mass market stem cell treatments for disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and age-related macular degeneration.

Lead researcher in the Hadassah study, Prof. Benjamin Reubinoff, director of the Hadassah Human Embryonic Stem Cells Research Center and an established and recognized researcher in the field, tells ISRAEL21c that stem celltherapy applications are not just science fiction.

Within the next year or two, companies in the US and Hadassah’s technology company in Israel will start clinical trials on humans. His center’s advance – a novel technique that allows researchers to grow and cultivate embryonic cells in suspension – paves the way for making this therapy available to everyone, not just the rich.

A decade in the making, so far

“This advance is one important step forward,” says Reubinoff. “Human embryonic stem cells were derived more than 10 years ago. And during these years many scientists worldwide have been working on solving the problems and obstacles along the way to be able to exploit the potential for stem cell therapy. We’ve found a way to solve this obstacle, a concept known and existing for 20 years.”
In their study, the scientists show how human-derived embryonic stem cells can be grown while floating in a solution. Until now, for cultures to grow, the stem cells had to be grown on a substrate, which is extremely labor intensive and limits the number of cells developed through cultivation.

“There is an application to the FDA for a trial [in the US] to transplant stem cells into patients with spinal cord injury and they hope this clinical trial will start within the next year or two,” says Reubinoff, who adds that in Israel, “we are not very far away from the time we will start initial clinical trials. We still need to see that the cells [selected] will have a therapeutic effect and that the cells are constructed in a careful way – to avoid tumor formation.”

The research team at Hadassah has started its own company called Cell Cure Neurosciences and is also hoping to begin clinical trials within the next two years, using stem cells to attempt to repair age-related macular degeneration in the eye, for which there is currently no cure.

With the upcoming trials in humans in both the US and Israel, the promise that stem cell therapy may be able to “repair” degenerative or genetic diseases may be fulfilled sooner than was anticipated.

Stem therapy accessible to millions

But before any immediate application, whether for eyes, Alzheimer’s, diabetes or Parkinson’s, the researchers in Israel are happy just to contribute to this promising field. Their discovery, they say, opens up the possibility that stem cell therapy could be within reach of millions of people, not just the select few with the means to afford it.

The aim in stem cell therapy is to grow millions of embryonic stem cells that can be matured into any kind of cell found in our body, potentially providing an endless supply of cells that could repair damage caused by specific diseases or replace missing cells. Until now, researchers have been extremely limited in the scope of their applications because cultivating stem cells is so labor intensive.

With their new advance, the Hadassah researchers say they have created optimal conditions for the embryonic stem cells to grow while floating in a medium. Via this method, they say, the cells do not differentiate into specific cell types, which is an undesirable and dangerous effect.

“Until now human embryonic cells derived from embryos developed in colonies,” Reubinoff explains. “We showed you can actually take an embryonic cell and place it into a medium without it being attached to surface and feeder cells. In our research we took an IVF embryo, with permission, one that was five days old. The stem cells multiplied and gave rise to many cultures.

“We show that under specific conditions we’ve developed you can divide and grow the cells in suspension, opening the window for the development of systems that will allow the large scale development of bulk cultures of stem cells needed for patients,” concludes Reubinoff.

This means that stem cells could be grown in large tanks, and cultivated in quantities big enough to meet the world’s needs.

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