Peter Zandstra is such a pioneer in the field of stem cell bioengineering that he actually helped coin the term as a co-author of a 2001 publication on the topic. He is now the Director of the UBC School of Biomedical Engineering, and was recently appointed as a Companion Member of the Order of Canada for this work.
“Biomedical engineering is an evolving discipline that brings together fundamentals in biology, technology, engineering, design, and mathematics to solve real-world problems in healthcare,” says Zandstra.
“We’re really interested in trying to recapitulate blood development, and use the cells from the blood-forming system as therapeutics. What’s really exciting is that these mature blood cells themselves can then be engineered to target certain types of tumours or cancer therapeutics.”
A prime example of this is using T cells — a type of immune cell — to seek and destroy cancer cells. To accomplish this, researchers can engineer T cells to express receptors on their surface that target specific features on cancer cells.
The field is working towards how to make enough of these engineered cells to use them therapeutically. Many mature cell types don’t divide readily, but stem cells do — and under the right conditions they can be coaxed into maturing into specific cell types.
Therefore the process requires two parts: one where large numbers of stem cells are grown in large reactors, and a second that induces their maturation into specific cell types like T cells.
“Cellular therapeutics and engineered cells are really the fourth pillar of medicine, and we’re already seeing that,” adds Zandstra.
“There are products approved and commercialized on the market to treat cancers based on living cell products: T cells, bone marrow transplantation which started in the 1960s. So we know that these therapies are efficacious.”
Zandstra has also been involved in spin-out companies that have translated lab processes into treatments for diseases like leukemia. The hope is that these efforts will make cell-based therapies more accessible to people who need them. Zandstra envisions a future where doctors or pharmacists may even be able to treat their patients with vials of cells off the shelf.
Stem cell bioengineering is still a new field, but it is already making an impact. As it continues to advance, more options will become available to help more patients.