At the University of Toronto, medical researchers have made a major breakthrough in stem cell methodology. Every stem cell is like a blank canvas, and researchers are racing to see what kind of treatments these blanks can become. The scientists utilized robotics and other automation to regulate a number of factors related to stem cells. Researchers will find that this high-throughput platform should save them valuable time as they struggle to find new cures. University of Toronto researchers managed to take biomaterial to new limits beyond stem cell transplantation – in their mice experiments it also helps speed up the healing process in eye or brain injuries.
The newest breakthrough in in cell transplantation is using “hydrogel” in keeping cells alive and active, and enabling a better integration into the tissue. Even though these are only preliminary lab trial results, scientists could already find supporting evidence that it can partially treat blindness and participate in the brain recovery after a stroke.
Molly Shoichet and Derek van der Kooy, professors at the University of Toronto, worked alongside Professor Cindi Morshead to come up with a way to enclose stem cells in a hydrogel that acted as booster for the healing process when implanted inside the eye or the brain.
Their research is part of a larger initiative that looks to develop better therapies that can reverse nerve damage caused either by injury or disease. Stem cells are part of the future of therapeutic treatments, mostly because they have an amazing ability of transforming into any cell type found in the body.
So far, more scientists have succeeded growing stem cells in labs; but as soon as they were transplanted into an injured spot in the body, they would shut down. That’s why most experiments resulted in the cells dying or failing to integrate properly into the tissue.
Shoichet, an awarded and esteemed bioengineer (she won the L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award not long ago), gathered a research team and created it in 2010, designing it to act as bubble wrap that would hold cells intact when they needed to be delivered for transplants. Their purpose was to hold the cells together inside the hydrogels, but Shoichet proved it can do more than that; according to their research, stem cells have better chances of surviving and integrating in the tissue when hydrogel is present.


Shoichet says discovering the effect of engineered hydrogel on stem-cell has brought this kind of therapy to a new level. Stem cells did not just thrive inside hydrogels, but researchers took the next step, which was showing how the new cells have the ability of restoring lost functions caused by damage or illness.
Blind mice were used to test the hypothesis of the Stem Cell Reports study; the team injected photoreceptors inside hydrogel, grown from stem cells, and then directly into the mice’s eyes.
Michael Cooke, a postdoctoral researcher who works in Shoichet’s lab, was responsible with the experiments involving treatment of mice brains who had recently suffered from strokes. As researchers found that hydrogel already worked efficiently in two different parts of the nervous system, they hope it can do the same in transplants involving other body areas.
The Toronto research team determined that by following these two proteins, it is possible to track four types of early cell fates at one time.
With the help of the university’s Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, the professors published the paper in Stem Cell Reports.
Instead of thriving in the new environment, its complexity would prove too much for the implanted stem cells. After receiving such good results from the lab tests, the University of Toronto researchers presented in a pictured show how the biomaterial is useful in stem cell transplantation, but not just that: it can actually speed up eye and brain healing.
Due to the significantly increased cell survival and improved integration in the surrounding environment, mice were able to partially regain sight.
Brian Ballios, expert in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine for retinal degenerative disease; he explained that the blind mice regained roughly 15 percent of their pupillary response – basically, they started detecting light entering the eye.
One of the most impressive progresses was the motor coordination, which improved in just weeks after the transplant.
Hydrogel is also dissolvable, which means that after delivering cells to the site, it gets absorbed by the body within a few weeks. The possibilities are considered virtually endless, but breakthroughs are slow because stem cell use is still in its infancy.


It also applies to future drug development which may be able to create safe drug treatments based on stem cell use or research. Current research protocols can only perform individual screenings, wasting valuable time and resources. The breakthrough is the work of the University’s Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering Department.
This may be just the step forward that researchers need for a revolution in stem cell science. Presently more than 50 applications of stem cells have been used successfully for very specialized treatments of cancers and genetic defects. It can determine other parameters that make it possible to study the cells as they move through the process of turning into other cell types.
With this bridge between different cell lines, scientists also should be able to better predict genetic abnormalities. Every day, researchers at a select few labs at top biomedical engineering schools have been seeking new ways to apply stem cells to many more cancers and diseases. By controlling the environment more completely, it allows for faster testing of any drugs or compounds that utilize stem cells. The University of Toronto researchers have created a new methodology that streamlines the process of testing and working with the cells.
Faster screening and better observation methods should speed up the work of researchers across the world.



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