One of the miracles of modern day medicine science, stem cells, are regarded by scientists as the basic building blocks for devising treatments, cures or transplants for some of today’s yet incurable diseases like Alzheimer or diabetes. The biggest hurdle researchers face is differentiating stem cells so that they may grow into a specific type of cell. Researchers at Manchester University may have come across a breakthrough in leaping this particular issue after they used sugar-coated scaffolds to guide embryonic stem cells so that they may develop into specific types of somatic cells.

Scientists have used sugar-coated scaffolding to move a step closer to the routine use of stem cells in the clinic and unlock their huge potential to cure diseases from Alzheimer’s to diabetes. (c) University of Manchester

Scientists have used sugar-coated scaffolding to move a step closer to the routine use of stem cells in the clinic and unlock their huge potential to cure diseases from Alzheimer’s to diabetes. (c) University of Manchester

The web-like biomaterial is made out of sugar molecules using a technique called electrospinning, which employs an electrical charge to draw very tiny fibres from a liquid, mimicking structures that occur in nature. These long, linear sugar molecules or meshes have shown in previous research that play a fundamental role in stem cell transformation and regulation of behavior. This combination of sugar molecules with the fibre web, provides both biochemical and structural signals which guide ESCs into becoming specific types of somatic cells.

Lead author Dr Catherine Merry, from Manchester’s Stem Cell Glycobiology group, said: “These meshes have been modified with long, linear sugar molecules, which we have previously shown play a fundamental role in regulating the behaviour of stem cells. By combining the sugar molecules with the fibre web, we hoped to use both biochemical and structural signals to guide the behaviour of stem cells, in a similar way to that used naturally by the body. This is the Holy Grail of research into developing new therapeutics using stem cell technology.”

Whether the Holy Grail claim is a worthy assumption, that remains to be seen. What’s certain is that if the researchers’ technique can be scaled, a range of applications might be opened up for it from tissue engineering, where the meshes could support cells differentiating to form bone, liver or blood vessels, and much more. The meshes also have potential therapeutic implications in the treatment of diseases such as multiple osteochondroma (MO), a rare disease creating bony spurs or lumps caused by abnormal production of these sugar molecules.

Co-author Professor Tony Day, from Manchester’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell-Matrix Research, said: “This cross-faculty collaboration provides exciting new possibilities for how we might harness the adhesive interactions of extracellular matrix to manipulate stem cell behaviour and realise their full therapeutic potential.”

Findings were published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

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