Friday, 21 December 2012

Scientists convert stem cells into vascular smooth muscle cells

A team of scientists from the John Hopkins University announced today, that they reached a milestone in the artificial growth of blood tissue. Growing blood tissue in the lab, is one of the greatest challenges researchers face today. But the team , lead by Sharon Gerecht, managed to turn stem cells into two different types of tissue that are of great importance for creating vascular networks containing veins and arteries.

The ability to create vascular networks will one day benefit a great range of people with cardiovascular damage, including patients who had a heart attack and people with diabetes. According to Gerecht, their research aims to help exactly this target group.

“That’s our long-term goal—to give doctors a new tool to treat patients who have problems in the pipelines that carry blood through their bodies,” and added, “Finding out how to steer these stem cells into becoming critical building blocks to make these blood vessel networks is an important step.”

Gerect's team focused on creating vascular smooth muscle cells from various stem cells. During their experiments, they used human embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells mixed with  various concentrations of growth factors and serum. In the end, they managed to create two important types of vascular cells.
Synthetic smooth muscle cells and contractile smooth muscle cells. The first ones migrate in the surrounding tissue and provide support in newly formed vessels while the second ones stay in place to stabilise the growth of new developing vessels.

Vascular smooth muscle cells
According to Gerecht, using different concentrations of growth factors and serum results in different types vascular smooth muscle cell

“When we added more of the growth factor and serum, the stem cells turned into synthetic smooth muscle cells. When we provided a much smaller amount of these materials, they became contractile smooth muscles cells.” 

But Gerecht believes that their findings may be useful in other areas as well, for example cancer treatment. When a cancer tumour develops, blood vessels that nourish develop along with it. So their research may give other scientists a better understanding of how tumours are developed.

Image of stem cell researcher Sharon Gerecht
Sharon Gerecht, image property of Homewood Photography
Gerecht concluded that although their research is very promising, there is still a long way to go before growing blood vessels in the lab..

“We still have a lot more research to do before we can build complete new blood vessel networks in the lab. ” and added “but our progress in controlling the fate of these stem cells appears to be a big step in the right direction.”

Sharon Gerecht is an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering

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