An inexpensive system that simplifies culturing human embryonic stem cells has been developed by a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"It's a technology that anyone can use. It's very simple," said Laura Kiessling, a UW-Madison professor of chemistry.
Scientists still use surfaces that contain mouse cells or mouse proteins to grow batches of human cells, whether embryonic or induced stem cells - which increases the chances of contamination by animal pathogens such as viruses, a serious concern for cells that might be used in therapy.
The new culture system utilizes a synthetic, chemically made substrate of protein fragments, peptides, which have an affinity for binding with stem cells.
It can culture cells in their undifferentiated states for up to three months and possibly longer and also works for induced pluripotent stem cells, the adult cells genetically reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells.
Cells maintained in the system, Kiessling noted, were subsequently tested to see if they could differentiate into desired cell types, and performed just as well as cells grown in less defined, commercially available cell culture systems.
She added that the first clinical trials are underway and that as more tests in human patients are initiated, confidence in the safety of the cells will be paramount.
"The disadvantages of the culture systems commonly used now are that they are undefined - you don't really know what your cells are in contact with - and there is no uniformity, which means there is batch-to-batch variability," Kiessling said.
"The system we've developed is fully defined and inexpensive."
The study is published in the journal Nature Methods.