Scientific breakthrough to pave the way for human stem cell factories

31 Aug 2010 15:00:00.000

PA 226/10

Large scale, cost-effective stem cell factories able to keep up with demand for new therapies to treat a range of human illnesses are a step closer to reality, thanks to a scientific breakthrough involving researchers at The University of Nottingham.

Currently, stem cells are cultured using animal derived products that encourage the cells to reproduce without losing their pluripotency — their ability to be turned into any type of adult stem cell, whether it be a cardio myocyte to be used in treating heart attack victims or a bone cell for growing new bone to graft to a patient’s own.

However, the potential for cross-species contamination and the difficulty in reproducing these cells in large numbers means that while they are useful as a research tool, a synthetic alternative would be essential for the treatment of patients.

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In a paper published in the September edition of the prestigious journal Nature Materials, a team of Nottingham scientists led by Professor Morgan Alexander in the University’s School of Pharmacy, reveal they have discovered some man-made acrylate polymers which allow stem cells to reproduce while maintaining their pluripotency.

Professor Alexander said: “This is an important breakthrough which could have significant implications for a wide range of stem cell therapies, including cancer, heart failure, muscle damage and a number of neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.

“One of these new manmade materials may translate into an automated method of growing pluripotent stem cells which will be able to keep up with demand from emerging therapies that will require cells on an industrial scale, while being both cost-effective and safer for patients.”

The research, a collaboration with colleagues Bob Langer, Dan Anderson, Rudolf Jaenisch and Krystyn Van Vliet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), involved using polymer microarrays — standard scientific glass slides with 1,700 polymer spots on the surface. Stem cells tagged with a fluorescent agent which allow them to be seen were placed onto the polymer spots. The scientists were then able to watch the stem cells and observe which polymers were most successful at promoting the most growth while also maintaining the pluripotency of the stem cells. Critically, in this paper the influence of the material properties was investigated though analysis of the polymer micro array spots.

Funding of £2.3 million has been secured from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to develop polymers for a fully automated cell culture system using the industrial scale robotic cell culture methods being pioneered at the University’s Wolfson Centre for Stem Cells, Tissue Engineering and Modelling (STEM) by Chris Denning and Lorraine Young.

A UK Centre of Excellence in the field of stem cell science, STEM focuses on musculoskeletal, neural and cardiac tissues, combining a pure science emphasis on tissue developmental and repair mechanisms with applied research on the clinical applications of tissue engineering and the industrial application of laboratory-based stem cell culture methods.

Housed in £25 million, purpose-built facilities which link the University Park campus to The University of Nottingham Medical School, it has attracted investment and competitive awards totalling almost £10 million in the last three years.

Building on long-established core research in stem cell biology, tissue engineering and mathematical modelling of stem cell behaviour, it has created a critical mass of more than 70 researchers and offers the world’s first MSc in Stem Cell Technology.

The paper ‘Combinatorial development of biomaterials for clonal growth of human pluripotent stem cells’ will appear in the September edition of Nature Materials and can be viewed online at













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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th

in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.


The University provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's “only truly global university”, it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. The University has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation — School of Pharmacy), and was named ‘Entrepreneurial University of the Year’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2008.


 Nottingham was designated as a Science City in 2005 in recognition of its rich scientific heritage, industrial base and role as a leading research centre. Nottingham has since embarked on a wide range of business, property, knowledge transfer and educational initiatives (www.science-city.co.uk) in order to build on its growing reputation as an international centre of scientific excellence. The University of Nottingham is a partner in Nottingham: the Science City.) 

Story credits

More information is available from Professor Morgan Alexander on +44 (0)115 951 5119, morgan.alexander@nottingham.ac.uk
Emma Thorne

Emma Thorne - Media Relations Manager

Email: emma.thorne@nottingham.ac.uk Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5793 Location: University Park

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