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Pitt Scientist Receives Grant To Mass-Produce Stem Cells

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An associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh is working on a way to produce human stem cells on an industrial scale.

Ipsita Banerjee of the Swanson School of Engineering, with co-researcher Prashant Kumta, recently received a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to research a method of mass-producing “pluripotent” stem cells.

Pluripotent stem cells are adult stem cells which have been genetically modified to act more like an embryonic stem cell, according to the National Institutes of Health

These cells can be used to grow functional human organs that are used for transplants, according to Banerjee.

“In the lab, we can use pluripotent stem cells to give rise to a liver, or a brain, a pancreas or a heart or any [kind of] organs,” Banerjee said.

To get there, Banerjee had to propose a new way of culturing pluripotent stem cells. Rather than working on a flat surface, she is developing a way to culture the cells in three-dimensional suspension.

“If you want to mass-produce [using the traditional method] you would need a huge amount of surface area to get the desired billions of cells,” Banerjee said. “That is restrictive.”

She says this is necessary to meet demand for stem cells.

“As these stem cells move closer and closer to the clinic, the need for the number of stem cells is huge,” Banerjee said.

Banerjee said that pluripotent stem cells do not survive alone and must be with other pluripotent cells. She said her research might have found a way around this.

“What we are proposing to develop is a new way of [culturing the cells] by sort of ‘tricking’ them into thinking they have other cells surrounding them,” Banerjee said.

She said they will place the cells in special beads along with amino acids, which the stem cells will bond to thinking they are other stem cells.

Banerjee said researchers have moved away from using embryonic stem cells—which were a cause of ethical concern—removing that controversy from her research.

“We can take an adult cell [and] reprogram it to have the same potential of embryonic stem cells,” Banerjee said. “That’s really phenomenal, and it’s beyond any of the ethical issues.”

She added that she is hopeful that research in pluripotent stem cells will be able to produce “fully functional” organs within five to ten years.  

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