Synthetic stem cell breakthrough

Stem cell research which has the potential to rebuild human organs and treat diseases has been developed without the reliance on supporting human or animal cells.

The synthetic stem cell scaffolding, a new method for growing human embryonic stem cells, could potentially lead to cheaper transplant treatments, the production of whole human organs, and change the lives of people suffering from diseases such as Parkinson's, diabetes and heart disease, according to Dr Alan Dalton, a senior lecturer from the Department of Physics at the University of Surrey.

The study, published today in the journal Applied Materials and Interfaces says that traditionally, stem cells are cultivated with the help of proteins from animals, which rules out use in the treatment of humans.

While growing stem cells on other human cells risks contamination with pathogens that could transmit diseases to patients, according to the journal.

The team of scientists led by the University of Surrey, and in collaboration with Professor Peter Donovan at the University of California, have developed a scaffold of carbon nanotubes upon which human stem cells can be grown into a variety of tissues.

These new building blocks mimic the surface of the body's natural support cells and act as scaffolding for stem cells to grow on, a university spokeswoman said.

Cells that have previously relied on external living cells can now be grown safely in the laboratory, paving the way for revolutionary steps in replacing tissue after injury or disease.

Mr Dalton said: "While carbon nanotubes have been used in the field of biomedicine for some time, their use in human stem cell research has not previously been explored successfully.

"Synthetic stem cell scaffolding has the potential to change the lives of thousands of people, suffering from diseases such as Parkinson's, diabetes and heart disease, as well as vision and hearing loss.

"It could lead to cheaper transplant treatments and could potentially one day allow us to produce whole human organs without the need for donors."

Mr Dalton said the research is in its infancy but the holy grail would be to use the scaffolds to build new organs, although that would be decades away.

He said: "In the shorter term this new technology will allow new drugs to be tested."

Mr Dalton said the cells could be used for diseases which affect the brain or spinal cord, including treating someone who has had a stroke.

He said: "It's regenerative medicine which is potentially wide-ranging."