Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute have solved the decade-old mystery of why human embryonic stem cells are so difficult to culture in the laboratory.
The groundbreaking new finding will provide scientists with useful new techniques and moving the field closer to the day when stem cells can be used for therapeutic purposes.
The research is being published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
"This paper addresses a long-standing mystery," said Scripps Research Associate Professor Sheng Ding, who is senior author of the paper. "Scientists have been puzzled by why human embryonic stem cells die at a critical step in the culture process. In addition to posing a question in fundamental biology, this created a huge technical challenge in the lab."
In the study, the team discovered two novel synthetic small molecule drugs that can be added to human stem cell culture that each individually prevent the death of these cells. The team also unravels the mechanisms by which the compounds promote stem cell survival, shedding light on a previously unknown aspect of stem cell biology.
The hope of most researchers in the field is that one day it will be possible to use stem cells - which possess the ability to develop into many other distinct cell types, such as nerve, heart, or lung cells - to repair damaged tissue from any number of diseases, from Type 1 diabetes to Parkinson's disease, as well as from injuries.
Laboratory work with human embryonic stem cells, however, has been hampered by their notorious fragility. In the process of growing stem cells in culture, scientists must split off cells from their cell colonies. At this point in the process, however, human embryonic stem cells die unless the scientists take extraordinary care that this does not happen.
"The current techniques to keep these cells alive are tedious and labor-intensive," said Ding. "Keeping the cells alive is so difficult that some people are discouraged from entering the field. It is very frustrating experience for everyone."
Mysteriously, mouse embryonic stem cells-which share much basic biology with human embryonic stem cells-do not pose the same difficulties in the laboratory. They can usually be split off from a colony and go on to survive and thrive.
To address these issues, the scientists decided to start with a screen of a library of chemical compounds to see if they could find any small molecules that could be added to the human embryonic stem cell culture that would promote the cells' survival.
When the scientists examined their results, they were elated to find two novel compounds (named Thiazovivin and Pyrintegrin) that both worked to dramatically protect the cells, promoting human embryonic stem cell survival by more than 30 fold.
"Basically, this solved this cell survival problem that has been plaguing scientists for more than 10 years," said Ding.