A group of researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark have created a biodegradable scaffolding that is believed to help stem cells restore damaged tissue.
“So far we’ve tested it on mice and rats. But there’s still some way to go before we can use this scaffolding on humans,” said Menglin Chen, an Assistant Professor from the Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Centre (iNANO) at Aarhus University.
Chen is the head of a research group that has recently announced a new breakthrough in the scientific endeavour to make stem cells form new tissue by applying nanotechnology-based solutions.
Stem cells can, in principle, develop into all types of cells in the body. The problem is to get them to do it on command, i.e., get them to create new, healthy versions of specific cells that were damaged or lost due to injury, illness, age or other circumstances that prevent them from functioning in a proper way.
The so-called scaffolding, a paper-thin substance made from biodegradable nanofibres, mimics the extracellular matrix – that is, the structures in the body that hold cells together and support body tissue.
Researchers infused the fibres with a hydrogel and signal molecules that help cells turn specific genes on and off. In doing so, they could make the stem cells develop into the desired tissue.
“We have made the stem cells form ordinary skin cells. Then we have made the stem cells stick to the scaffolding and form new fibroblastic connective tissue. So far, we have gotten it to work in mice and rats, so it does not say a lot about how it will work in humans. The next step is to test it out on larger animals such as pigs and sheep,” explained Chen (sheep can experience the same problems with sagging pelvic organs after breeding).
These findings can one day become of great use to women suffering from a prolapsed uterus – almost 20 per cent of all women (and up to 50 per cent of women over 50) living in the industrialized world suffer from subsidence of the abdomen because the connective tissue in their pelvic muscles gets weaker over time.
In addition to general discomfort, prolapsed pelvic organs cal also cause incontinence. Many women opt for surgery, but since stitching the weakened connective tissue doesn’t hold very well, the likelihood of having to undergo an additional operation is as high as 30 per cent.
The synthetic material previously tried in these treatments has been shown to cause damage to the tissue (e.g. by perforating it) and so its use has now virtually stopped.
Therefore, it is important to find an alternative that is tissue-friendly and complication-free. The best way to accomplish this would be to find a way to coax the patient’s own connective tissue into re-growing.
For their study, the researchers have used ordinary skin cells has been “back programmed” to behave like stem cells – the so-called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs.
Pluripotent means they have the potential to develop into most – if not all – of the cell types in the organism.
Work on the new scaffold began in 2012, with support from Strategic Research and in collaboration with Coloplast, which is already focused on the treatment of incontinence.
The findings of the study were recently published in Nature Scientific Reports.