The Drug of the Future: Cells

Bioengineers are seeking to manufacture enough stem cells to make therapies viable, with big potential payoffs in fighting disease.

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The discovery of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. iPS cells, adult cells that have been reprogrammed to a stem-cell like state, offer enormous promise for cell therapies and personalized medicine. But there are still many hurdles to overcome before iPS cell therapies become ubiquitous.

Professor Peter Zandstra, Canada Research Chair in Stem Cell Bioengineering and Director of the recently launched Medicine by Design program at the University of Toronto, is focused on getting adequate cell numbers to make therapies feasible.

“We’re very interested in trying to understand what the conditions are by which we can generate billions and billions of cells in the hopes that the cells will be useful for cell therapies,” explains Zandstra.

And he’s already had success. ExcellThera, a company based around technology from the Zandstra lab, generates large numbers of blood stem cells. Their cells are currently undergoing a clinical trial for the treatment of leukemia. For other applications, such as in patients with heart disease or diabetes, it may be necessary to replace the entire damaged organ. These types of therapies are a little bit further away – perhaps 10 or 20 years.

Zandstra believes that cells are the “drug of the future” and an effort that Canada has the capacity to lead.

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Peter Zandstra graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering degree from McGill University in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and obtained his PhD from the University of British Columbia in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, under the supervision of Jamie Piret and Connie Eaves. He continued his research training as a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the field of Bioengineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (with Doug Lauffenburger) before being appointed to the University of Toronto in 1999.

His vision is to translate the biological properties and potential of stem cells into useful applications that benefit society. Zandstra has focused his career on the development of, and contributions to, the field of “Stem Cell Bioengineering”, a term first used in a 2001 article by Zandstra and Nagy and which is defined as an endeavor focused on the quantitative control of stem cell fate and the development of technologies for stem cell-based therapies. “I believe that significant health and economic benefits of regenerative medicine requires the application of fundamental engineering principles to stem cell biology”, says Zandstra.

An advocate for bioprocess engineering strategies and how these strategies have enabled the manufacture of many biotechnological products has significantly advanced the understanding of stem cell biology, immunology, and tissue regeneration. Most suggestively, how these biotechnology products can be translated into cellular therapies that could cure debilitating degenerative disease.

Research in the Zandstra Laboratory is therefore, focused on the generation of functional tissue from adult and pluripotent stem cells. His groups’ quantitative, bioengineering-based approach strives to gain new insight into the fundamental mechanisms that control stem cell fate and to develop robust technologies for the use of stem cells and their derivatives to treat disease. Specific areas of research focus include blood stem cell expansion and the generation of cardiac tissue and blood progenitors from pluripotent stem cells.