Stem cells have been a highly visible symbol of the work being done in the life sciences over the past decade. Often lumped into a single category, there are actually many ways to categorize stem cells, one of the ways to categorize them is by the origin of the cells, embryonic stem cells (ESC) vs. induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC). iPSCs avoid some of the more controversial issues surrounding stem cells, but there remains a debate about the differences and similarities between the two different ways to produce stem cells. (Something that I have wondered about iPSCs is how telomeres are affected, and then I came across these papers in PLoS ONE and Cell Stem Cell that showed telomeres revert to something close to what is found in ESCs.)
While stem cells potential impact on human health is immense, it remains just that: potential. However, slowly (it seems) but surely, stem cells are making the transition from being used only in very fundamental research to being a commercialized technology. Just a few days ago, the FDA ruled that the first clinical trial using ESCs can proceed; it had been on hold since the trial had a few setbacks last year.
Besides being used as therapies, stem cells can be used as tools to aid the development of other therapeutics. It has been well documented that the increases in pharma R&D has not translated to a corresponding increase in successful drug approvals, but perhaps as in vitro models are improved and more broadly utilized; a new wave of R&D productivity will be upon us. A company that thinks iPSCs can help usher in a new era of disease modeling is iPierian, whose technology is interesting because it draws on what some see as a drawback, the “memory” of iPSCs, and allows researchers to know the phenotype that is associated with these cells.
As stem cells of all types move forward in the commercialization cycle, it’s important that they become a more robust, pathogen-free, consistent product. The methods currently used to cultivate stem cells (feeder cells, FBS supplementation) do not help meet these goals. A tool that has been used to help reduce some drawbacks in stem cell culture is human serum albumin. Recombinant albumin could allow researchers to replace blood-derived albumin with a consistent, recombinant, animal-free option when designing stem cell cultivation techniques. It will be interesting to see how the cultivation of stem cells evolves, and to see if it will follow a similar path that cell culture for biotherapeutic production took.