A recent breakthrough in stem cell research has improved stem cells' ability to heal eyesight and brain damage.
A team of professors at the University of Toronto has made a breakthrough that drastically improves the effectiveness of certain stem cell treatments. According to a press release from U of T Engineering News, team developed a gel-like biomaterial that protects stem cells during transplantation and improves integration into new tissues. In fact, the “hydrogels” tested by the team were even able to partially reduce blindness in mice.
Professors Molly Shoichet, Derek van der Kooy, and Cindi Morshead wrapped stem cells in a hydrogel casing that drastically improved their regenerative capacities when transplanted into the brain and the eye. The study, published Thursday in Stem Cell Reports, was part of a larger effort to find new treatments for nerve damage caused by disease or injury.
Stem cells are both unique and extremely useful because of their ability to develop into virtually any type of cell in the body, which makes them a perfect starting point for generating new tissues and organs.
Scientists have mastered the art of growing stem cells in the lab, but still haven’t identified a reliable method of transplanting them into an actual human body. Implanted stem cells die quite often as a result of the complex surrounding environment.
Shiochet, a bioengineer at the University of Toronto, developed the hydrogel casing with her team several years ago, and found that it was effective at safely transporting cells to a damaged area. The recent breakthrough showed that the team’s hydrogels promoted cell survival and integration, in addition to merely holding them together.
To test the product, the research team injected photoreceptors grown from stem cells and covered in the hydrogels into the eyes of a blind mouse. The photoreceptors integrated into the eyes with little issue, and the mouse’s vision was restored up to 15 percent.
Hydrogel-covered stem cells were shown to improve motor function in mice that had suffered strokes in a different part of the study.
The study’s results are promising, and the simple yet effective hydrogels could be an important step in making stem cell treatments a reality.