Stem cells: Could we gain the power to induce cell regeneration? – Dr Catherine Berry

Most people have heard of stem cells. You may even be familiar with their potential to treat disease, but through my work as a stem cell researcher, I find people are less clear on how this works.

In short, stem cells initiate the production of new tissue cells, which can then replace their diseased counterparts.

Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) are adult stem cells found in many areas of the body such as bone marrow. The unique thing about these cells is their compatibility with a range of tissues such as bone, cartilage, muscle, or fat. MSCs respond to injury or disease by migrating to these damaged areas, where they restore tissue function by replacing the damaged cells.

It has recently been shown that the success of MSCs relies on their ability to release cell signals – their mechanism to initiate tissue regeneration. These signals are packaged into extracellular vehicles (EVs) which are essentially bubbles of information. These are released by MSCs and taken up by the injured or diseased tissue cells to kickstart their inbuilt process of regeneration.

Through funding from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, research has started into the development of artificial EVs as a viable alternative to cell therapy. These EVs will contain the key molecules released by stem cells when they are responding to injury cues in the body.

The power to induce tissue regeneration would provide a significant new tool in biomedical treatment, such as incorporating EVs into synthetic hydrogels within a wound dressing to encourage and accelerate healing.

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Within the lab setting, we have been able to manipulate stem cell cultures to produce EVs with different signal make-ups, and accurately identify their properties.

Controlling and identifying the different make-ups contained in EV signals – which in turn induce different cell responses – is crucial if we want to operationalise their use in medicine.

We now aim to synthesise artificial vesicles, or bubbles, for different clinical problems, such as, for example, bubbles with potent wound-healing properties that would help our ability to use new artificial stem cell therapy.

The research is underway and it is showing promise that we may be able to harness the regenerative power of stem cells in the near future.

An artificial EV-based approach also has several advantages over stem cell-based therapies, such as having increased potency and greater consistency in treatment, and at a lower cost to carry out.

Both inside and on the surface of the body, we would have the ability to induce a process vital to medical treatment we work with every day and, in turn, open a whole new avenue of possibilities in biomedical science.

Dr Catherine Berry is a reader in the Centre for the Cellular Microenvironment at the University of Glasgow, and a recipient of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s personal research fellowship in 2021. This article expresses her own views. The RSE is Scotland's national academy, bringing great minds together to contribute to the social, cultural and economic well-being of Scotland. Find out more at rse.org.uk and @RoyalSocEd.

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