Stem cells are notoriously hard to grow outside the body, but a new use of miniaturisation and robotics brings finding optimum growth conditions a step closer. The new research, which borrowed high throughput 'chip' techniques from genetics, focused on making epithelial cells from human embryonic stem cells (ES cells). It is hoped that these cells could be used to make synthetic skin. The method developed should be applicable to any lab-based use of stem cells that requires growing them into a specific cell type.
The technique relies on growing the ES cells on a glass slide, known as a microarray. Nearly 2000 spots of biomaterial are deposited onto a microarray, using ultraviolet light to join biological molecules together into a rigid scaffold. Each spot is then seeded with ES cells along with media that enables growth. Different spots have different combinations of media, growth factors and biomaterial, and the growth rate of stem cells on each spot can then be compared, indicating which conditions are most favourable. The microarrays are so small, only 25 by 75 millimetres, that only a minimal number of ES cells and growth media are required, reducing the cost of experimentation.
The research, published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, was carried out by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Daniel Anderson, leader of the team, said 'we can simultaneously process several microarrays under a variety of conditions'. Given that twenty of these glass slides can be produced per day, this means research can progress at a much faster rate. And results have already been forthcoming: the team has found that several materials, which were not expected to have a effect, 'offer new levels of control over human ES cell behaviour'.