Scientists at BC Children’s Hospital are overjoyed about a potentially game-changing stem cell research technology that’s the first of its kind anywhere in the world.
The single piece of equipment could lead to new treatments and better diagnoses with its ability to speed up development of stem cells, which in turn could help a magnitude of children suffering from severe illnesses.
“I think it will allow us to help a lot more kids in B.C.,” said Francis Lynn, a scientist and the head of Canucks for Kids Diabetes Research Laboratories at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute.
“It’s a really exciting time,” he continued.
The process to grow stem cells is a meticulous, time-consuming and sensitive one.
The cells are grown in a liquid broth containing different nutrients and vitamins, and the broth needs to be changed daily.
It also needs to be moved into new special containers every five to seven days as it outgrows the previous one, and kept in a humid 37 C incubator that mimics the conditions in the human body to allow them to grow effectively.
This process was previously done manually by the scientists at the hospital, but the new technology combines and automates all aspects of stem cell culturing into a single piece of equipment.
“This allows us to step away from doing those rather laborious tasks and move our work to more targeted things like understanding how diseases happen,” said Lynn.
The technology was developed by StemCell Technologies and took more than six years to make.
Previously, the team of scientists could only focus on two or three patients at a time as all the work had to be done manually, but with this automated system, the same work can now be done for up to 85 patients simultaneously.
“Stem cell cultivation used to take months. And it was very fraught with losing your culture. A virus could upset the whole process,” said Dr. Shubhayan Sanatani, the head of cardiology division at BC Children’s Hospital.
He also said he’s amazed by the new technology, which could lead to improved diagnoses, better treatments and potentially cures.
‘We’ll be able to run more experiments, study more patients, study more treatments,” he said.
Glen Tibbits, a biomedical physiology and kinesiology professor at Simon Fraser University, trains a team of 15 scientists.
So far, only about four people really know how to use the new technology.
“It negates any possibility of human error, introducing bacteria, mis-pipetting, putting in the wrong volume, putting into different cells. These are all negated by (the) roboticized unit,” he said.
While the focus is currently on patients’ hearts, nerves and diabetes, the technology could expand to grow different stem cells.
“It could be tissue repair. It could be liver. It could be (gastrointestinal), Crohn’s disease. It’s really unlimited,” Tibbits said.
The team is currently working on two patients with the system, but hopes to increase that number to 10 in the next few months and dozens more over time.