Straight to the Source on Stem Cell Bioengineering

It's an emerging field, but what is it all about, and what kind of promise does it hold for patients? We talk to one of the pioneers of the field.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

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.

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Peter Zandstra graduated with a BEng from McGill University in Chemical Engineering, obtained his PhD from the University of British Columbia in Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, and continued his research training as a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Bioengineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1999, Zandstra began his faculty appointment at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering and in 2016 was appointed as a University Professor. In July 2017, Zandstra joined the University of British Columbia as the Founding Director of the School of Biomedical Engineering, and as the Director of the Michael Smith Laboratories. In these roles he is building programs that apply technological innovation to biology and help to educate the next generation of biotechnology leaders. In addition to his academic roles, Zandstra has been involved in founding a number of biotechnology companies, including ExCellThera and Notch Therapeutics.

Zandstra’s research focuses on understanding how functional tissue forms from stem cells, and how this information can be applied to design of novel therapeutic technologies based on living cells. He has received significant recognition for his activities. He is the Canada Research Chair in Stem Cell Bioengineering (Tier 1) and is a recipient of a number of awards and fellowships including the Premiers Research Excellence Award (2002), the E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship (2006), the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (2007), and the Till and McCulloch Award (2013).

In 2021, Dr. Zandstra received recognition as a Companion Member of the Order of Canada. He is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (Engineering), the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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