Stem cells: latest developments and potential therapeutics

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This article is part of the media coverage of Stem Cell Society Singapore (SCSS) Symposium ‘Opportunities & Challenges in Stem Cell Based Medicine’, held 17-18 November 2015 at Biopolis, Singapore.

Stem cells have shown a lot of promise as potential therapeutics in treating a wide variety of disorders. However, significant challenges remain to be overcome before stem cell based therapies are routine in the clinic. This will need the troika of clinicians, researchers and regulators to work together to solve these challenges. Some challenges are being overcome whereas others like choosing the right kind of cells to treat a particular disorder still remain to be solved. The goal of this symposium was to identify some of these challenges and bring together experts in these areas in an attempt to solve them.

The symposium began with a session on the prospects of industrialization of stem cell based therapies through collaboration between public and private consortia. Michael May and Kim Warren, from Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM), Canada spoke at lengths on the initiative taken by the Canadian government in funding stem cell based therapeutics. Both of them highlighted the positive scenarios and shortcomings/fallbacks which the Regenerative Medicine (RM) field will encounter in the near future. According to estimates, the market for RM will reach $32 billion by 2018. However, the major challenges which will be faced are: 1) Identification of the right kind of stem cells and identifying their purity and potency along with. 2) Safety, freedom and appropriate business models for successful implementation. One of the possible approaches that the speakers discussed about was the establishment of a sustainable health and economic initiative through global collaboration in RM. This would ensure maximum health impact, job creation and sustainability.

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The complicated yet essential cycle of tissue acquisition for RM

Phil Vanek from GE Healthcare, USA spoke about the industry related developments and challenges with respect to RM. He explained the stepwise process and progress that could lead to an commercially viable cell based therapeutic being implemented. Of these, he highlighted the details of unit operation followed by physical and digital integration.

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This was followed by sessions dedicated to discussions on opportunities and challenges of pluripotent stem cells and derivatives. The speakers spoke about their efforts in generating stem cells in order to study and potentially develop therapeutics for a number of diseases. Some of the topics that were highlighted were – generation for motor neurons for patients suffering from ALS, neural progenitors for Parkinson’s, diabetes, treatment for spinal cord injury and macular degeneration (damage to retina).

The second day continued with sessions dedicated to more advances and attempts to generate pluripotent stem cells for therapy of wide range of diseases in both academia and industry. The talk given by Antonio Lee from MEDIPOST America Inc. was particularly interesting. Dr. Lee spoke about CARTISTEM®, which is the world’s first approved stem cell product being employed for the use of treatment of degenerative osteoarthritis in Korea. It was cleared by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, Korea in 2012 and has since been used to treat over 2400 patients in Korea. It is currently under US-FDA IND Phase I/IIa clinical trials. He discussed the experience of development of CARTISTEM® by utilizing umbilical cord blood stem cells along with its market experience. He also revealed some more details about two of MEDISTEM’s upcoming therapeutics – PNEUMOSTEM® and NEUROSTEM® for the treatment of BronchoPulmonary Dysplasia of premature babies and Alzheimer’s disease, respectively. Both these drugs are currently under Phase I/II Clinical trials.

Nick Barker, Institute of Medical Biology, Singapore elucidated the role of Lgr5 positive stem cells in initiating stomach cancer. He discussed about his group’s attempts at revealing markers in these stem cells that can be used to selectively target cancer causing mutations in order to evaluate their contribution to gastric cancer initiation. Prabha Sampath, also from Institute of Medical Biology, Singapore spoke about the role of microRNAs specific to Glioma Stem Cells that cause tumor initiation in the brain. Shigeki Sugii from SBIC, Singapore spoke about the use of molecular markers for metabolic programming studies to improve the rate of adipocyte maturation and eventual reprogramming into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

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Source: IMB

The symposium concluded with an excellent keynote lecture by Mahendra Rao, Wake Forest School of Medicine, USA who has a proven track record for his research involving human embryonic stem cells, iPSCs and other stem cells. He described the recently development and characterization of a novel and clinically compliant process to generate iPSCs using cord blood. He also stressed on the importance of iPSCs in the near future to make multiple products and given their immortal status, they can be used for years or even decades.

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Generation of iPSCs from adult cells

However, this makes it highly essential to develop assays to monitor the state of these cells and their drift from source. He also outlined how this could be achieved by detailed characterization of the initial status of the cells, comparison with calibration material and development of reporter sub clones that will help determine which set of tests will be most useful in monitoring cells and establish specific criteria for specific cell lines.

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Therapies based on induced pluripotent stem cells, here differentiating into retinal cells on a scaffold, were the focus of the Center for Regenerative Medicine (NIH).

Overall, the symposium was a wonderful medium to facilitate interaction and communication between stem cell scientists of all levels. Platforms like these not only provide scientific insights into a specific area but also encourage forming collaborations between people with different skill sets.

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Manish graduated in Biomedical Sciences from University of Delhi, India and finished his doctorate from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore in RNA biology while working on molecular mechanisms of brain development in mice. Currently, he is working as a Research Fellow in Institute of Medical Biology, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) with the Translational Control in Development and Disease group. His research areas include developing molecular therapies against glioblastomas and breast cancers as well as investigating mechanisms involved in muscular dystrophies. He is a music lover and loves playing the sitar. An ardent follower of Manchester United and Formula One, he likes to spend his time reading, watching movies and cooking.