Organs-on-Chips are set to be studied in zero gravity at the International Space Station. Astronauts who go into space have been known to experience changes in their health and immune response, but until recently, the reasons for these changes remained largely unknown. Previously, animals were sent as a way to determine the long-term health effects of being in space. However, since every organism functions differently, this approach, while useful, had obvious drawbacks. Organs-on-Chips [OOCs] are an innovation created by a collaborative effort of the Wyss Institute of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others. OOCs are small vessels that utilize stem cells to create various tissue types to simulate the conditions inside human organs. If the tests prove successful, these tiny chips will be the closest researchers get to estimating the effects of space travel on human organ function - aside from sending out actual astronauts.
Bone grafts help millions of people suffering from bone loss due to trauma or disease. Typically, traumatic bone injuries and bone loss due to disease have been mended with synthetic grafts or segments of bone taken from another area in the patient’s body. However, these treatments do not last long-term in growing bodies, and lack vasculature required for mature bone growth. In vitro tests at the New York Stem Cell Foundation Research Institute of a new technology called Segmental Additive Tissue Engineering (SATE) have demonstrated stem cell grown segments of bone creating large scale, personalized grafts. The SATE protocol seeds the patient’s own stem cells into a scaffold and directs the cells to develop into customized and vascularized bone segments, which pose virtually no risk of rejection, and are able to grow with the patient.
A phase II clinical study investigating the efficacy of mesenchymal stem cells [MSCs] to treat moderate to severe lupus symptoms has been launched by the Lupus Foundation of America, in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (part of the NIH). Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disorder in which the immune system can affect virtually any tissue in the body, including skin, joints and organs. MSCs represent a promising treatment option in that, in addition to the inherent plasticity of MSCs, they also possess immune modulation properties. The NIH is providing resources and oversight for the study, which will investigate how mesenchymal stem cells can effectively regulate and limit the autoimmune response of Lupus sufferers. Currently there are no effective options for their lupus symptoms other than steroid treatments, which have significant side effects, as they are detrimental to vital organ function.
Researchers are developing stem cell therapies to restore neurons and repair optic nerve injuries, which cause severe visual impairment and eventual blindness. Currently, optic nerve injuries are untreatable, due to the neuronal death that renders the nerve non-functional following a traumatic injury. This study investigates how periodontal ligament stem cells [PDLSCs] can improve retinal ganglion cells’ (RGC) survival, responsible for the optic nerve’s function. In an animal model, three weeks after an injection of PDLSCs, researchers observed inflammatory responses indicative of increased RGC survival, as well as regeneration of nerve connections, with no adverse effects.
In a breakthrough study, 3D printed organs have been vascularized to sustain the growing tissue and bring printed organs one step closer to fruition. Currently, hundreds of thousands of Americans are on waiting lists for life-saving organs, and 20 patients die waiting each day. This innovative research by Prellis Biologics is making headway to allow for more effective and efficient printing of organs. 3D printing has had to overcome 2 major obstacles: the development of a biological scaffold to allow for three dimensional growth of cells into the desired organs, and the oxygenation and nutrient delivery to the growing tissue for prolonged periods of printing time using blood vessels. Though a biological medium for 3D tissue growth has already been developed, Prellis has created a more effective an efficient method of vascularizing the growing organ tissue, as well as expediting the printing process as a whole.
Researchers at Novoheart have created functional mini heart organoids, which are the first of their kind to contain chambers, like those found in fully grown human hearts. This advancement in stem cell engineering will expedite drug trials, which could bring potential cures to those who need them much sooner. Typically, new drugs take many years and require exorbitant resources to bring them to market, but Novoheart’s mini heart organoids look to disrupt the status quo and speed up the development of treatment options. Since these hearts have tissues differentiated from adult stem cells, the organoids behave and react to treatments like real hearts would, which allows researchers to detect and eliminate detrimental side effects long before reaching clinical trials. Additionally, the heart organoids can be used to understand cardiovascular diseases, which affect millions of people around the world.
Researchers at USC [University of Southern California] have utilized stem cells to track neuronal growth and identify specific genes that appear to be responsible for the development of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. The study linked the DISC1 gene to the development of schizophrenia, which currently does not have effective treatments and causes disproportionate disability compared to other neurological disorders. Like many neurological disorders, the source of schizophrenia has been ambiguous and this research, with the use of stem cells, is helping to navigate this disorder. Through the utilization of stem cells, the study determined how genes like DISC1 function in the body, and their downstream impact on protein function and neurotransmitter production by tracking the gene expression.
Researchers at Newcastle University are 3D printing corneas utilizing stem cells. The process involves mixing stem cells in a bio-gel which is derived from seaweed and collagen that allows these stem cells to be cultured and printed easily and efficiently into fully functioning corneas. The cornea plays an important role in focusing light that enters the eye. Technically, blindness caused by corneal damage is easily reversible with a corneal transplant. However, there is a vast shortage of donor corneas due to general organ and tissue donation shortages. In addition, there is also a significant risk of rejection - as is the case with any donated tissue.
“Clean meat” company Future Meat Technologies anticipate they can bring the price of lab-grown, “meatless” meat down to approximately $8 per kg [$4 per pound]. The process involves obtaining mesenchymal stem cells from the animal and differentiating the stem cells into both muscle and fat tissues, which are indistinguishable from those found in standard meat. The meat cooks, tastes and smells exactly like anything you’d get from an animal- however, the biggest hurdle has been its high price. Future Meat Technologies looks to overcome this hurdle by bringing costs down, by differentiating stem cells more efficiently and scaling up production.
A mesenchymal stem cell treatment for patients with cardiac muscle degeneration and ventricular failure is being conducted at the MedStar Heart and Vascular Institute. The patients currently being recruited for the study are those who require left ventricular assist devices (LVADs) in order to pump their heart, and these patients are in severe stages of cardiac failure. In pre-clinical models, intravenous mesenchymal stem cell injections have greatly improved left ventricular function, which is responsible for pumping and pressurizing the blood to the rest of the body. Additionally, there was a significant decrease in the inflammatory response that is indicative of damaged cardiac muscles. By reducing inflammation researchers hope to not only provide immediate relief for the strained cardiac muscle, but also slow or stop the progression of heart failure.