Collaborating to Save Stem Cells

Successful stem cell therapies in humans are nearly within reach. Some cross-disciplinary collaboration is helping us get there.

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If you’ve been following Research2Reality for a while, you’ve definitely heard us talk about the potential of stem cells for curing disease. You’ve probably also heard us mention that poor stem cell survival after transplantation is one of the major roadblocks to successful stem cell therapies.

But how do we know that transplanted stem cells are dying?

Typically, in order to figure out the fate of a stem cell after transplantation, you have to cut the tissue out and look at it under a microscope. But this type of analysis only gives you a snapshot of what’s happening at a single point in time, and is obviously not an option if you’re working with human patients. In fact, if you transplant stem cells into a human patient, there’s really no way of knowing how they’re doing, except for the hopefully declining disease symptoms.

That’s why Professor Hai-Ling Margaret Cheng and Professor Michael Laflamme are teaming up in their Medicine by Design project.

“Collaboration is absolutely critical to these projects because nobody’s got a solution to everything,” says Laflamme.

Laflamme is an expert in heart disease and cardiac tissue engineering. His goal is to use stem cells to rebuild dead heart muscle after heart attack. Cheng is an expert in imaging, especially magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). She’s constantly looking for new ways to see specific cells inside the body without cutting anything.

“Because I bring these new imaging technologies to the table, Mike [Laflamme] can see applications for them that he had no idea [about] before,” explains Cheng.

Together, they’re coming up with a non-invasive method to track the fate of transplanted stem cells inside the heart.

The ability to monitor the progress of a transplant over time can transform stem cell research. Scientists will be able to figure out exactly when stem cells are dying or migrating to pinpoint root causes and solve the underlying problems. Doctors would be able to track injected stem cells to determine whether a treatment was working as anticipated, or perhaps to inform whether a second injected is necessary.

“When you work in a collaborative team, often it’s the people who don’t know much about the problem who can see a new solution,” says Cheng. “That’s the energy that this Medicine by Design initiative really brings.”