The Properties of Stem Cell Research

Stem cells have the ability to develop into almost any kind of cell. Spurred by stem cells’ potential to replace diseased cells and cure a wide variety of diseases, scientists around the globe have been studying the qualities of these cells. Because many different properties of stem cells still need to be understood, there are a number of different techniques used to analyze stem cells. For example, confocal microscopy and flow cytometry can study their morphology. In addition to giving information about a cell’s size and shape, confocal microscopy has a three-dimensional-imaging capability that can be used to examine internal cellular structures. Fluorescence-based confocal microscopy also allows for the excitation of fluorophore markers, which can provide information about cellular activity. Leading confocal microscope manufacturers include Zeiss, Leica and Olympus. Some confocal microscope models are fitted with incubation chambers which are designed to keep stem cells alive during the imaging process, and spinning disk confocal microscopes are frequently used for imaging live cells. In addition to measuring physical characteristics, flow cytometry can analyze a variety of membrane electrochemistries and molecular qualities, such as the presence of antigens and protein expression. Higher-end flow cytometers can also sort and purify groups of cells by using an electric charge to deflect cells that meet preselected analytical criteria into a collection tube. Jeff Ezell, director of communications and public relations for Becton Dickinson and Company, said that the most commonly used flow cytometers in stem cell research are those “that enable robust multiplexed analysis and purification of stem cells.” Of BD’s offerings, Mr. Ezell stated that the BD FACSAria, which has “digital acquisition rates of up to 70,000 events per second” and can analyze up to 15 different parameters, was the model most often used by stem cell researchers. A future application for flow cytometry in stem cell research, according to Mr. Ezell, will be the characterization and purification of stem cells based on cell surface markers. The markers, which are identified commonly through proteomic mass spectrometry analyses, could eventually be used as a flow cytometry parameter, thereby streamlining the “culturing, manipulation, expansion, analysis, and eventually transplantation” of stem cells. Other flow cytometer manufacturers include Beckman Coulter and Dako. Common biochemical stem cell research techniques include PCR and immunochemistry. PCR is used to analyze the genetic material of cells, while immunochemical methods allow researchers to identify cells by using specific antibodies trigger reactions inside cells and on cell membranes. Of course, reagents play an important role in stem cell research for all of the aforementioned techniques, and a wide variety of reagents have been created for all stem cell research workflows. Of the reagents used for characterization, most are markers that are used with fluorescence-based techniques or antibodies that can be used for immunochemistry identification. As Louise Rollins, product manager for Stem Cells and Cell Biology at Millipore, explained, “Customers value antibodies that are well validated and tested in various applications such as immunocytochemistry, flow cytometry and immunohistochemistry. They are also looking for reproducibility of results.” Within the subset of pluripotent stem cell research reagents, Dr. Rollins indicated that Oct-4 and Nanog markers are among the most commonly used. She added, “there is a large market for mouse pluripotent reagents [in the US], and despite federal funding policies, the human pluripotent stem cell market is growing in the US. Other high growth markets include Australia and the UK.” Dr. Rollins believes that demand for characterization reagents and antibodies will increase as researchers deepen their understanding of stem cell biology. Invitrogen is also one of the leading producers of reagents for stem cell research, and provides a variety of markers and antibodies, as well as stem cell culture and expansion reagents. Stem cell research workflows also call for the use of specialized labware, such as microplates and cell culture flasks. Corning and BD, are two firms with a wide array of labware offerings for stem cell research. As Dale Carson, chief communications officer at the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) explained, because embryonic stem cell research is changing at such a rapid pace, it is difficult to know precisely what analytical techniques will dominate stem cell research. “Many have focused, for example, on SCNT [somatic cell nuclear transfer, a process in which the nucleus from a donor cell is placed in an egg cell, which then grows and produces stem cells with DNA that is virtually identical to the donor cell]. But recent work by [Shinya] Yamanaka et al. have opened the door to genetically reprogramming (and reverting) adult cells into a pluripotent state. So it’s impossible to predict the trends or instruments that will dominate the field in even a year’s time.” Because stem cell therapies and other stem cell–based products are still many years away from commercialization, most of the funding for stem cell research comes from government sources or private research institutions. Within the US, individual states and private research organizations are the primary sources of funding for embryonic stem cell research. On the state level, California is the most significant funder of stem cell research. Proposition 71, which was passed in 2004, will roughly $3 billion for stem cell research over 10 years. CIRM, the organization responsible for providing research grants from this money, announced this August that $227 million in grants for new stem cell laboratories will be available to applicants. In New Jersey, a law was passed in 2006 that will provide up to $270 million in funding for the expansion of human embryonic stem cell research facilities, and New York approved $100 million to fund stem cell research for the current fiscal year, which began in April. Private funding for stem cell research has been considerable in the US: according to an August 2007 policy brief from the Rockefeller Institute, since 2001, private donors have given a total $1.7 billion to support stem cell research. This private funding does not include work done at research institutions such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, whose Stem Cell Research Fund was valued at more than $15.6 million in 2006, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which provided $93 million in research funding between 2001 and 2006. In Asia, Singapore has been a leader in stem cell research funding. According to the International Society for Stem Cell Research, the country spends $40–$45 million a year on stem cell research. A good portion of Singaporean stem cell research funding goes to the Stem Cell Consortium, which was established in 2005, and will receive up to $45 million for the years 2006–2009, according to TIME Asia. According to Science, stem cell funding in South Korea could rise to $25 million per year by 2008, despite that country’s checkered past in the field. China and Japan also have substantial research programs for stem cell research. Stem cell research efforts in Europe are led by the UK. According to Parliamentary records, £45 million went specifically to fund stem cell research between 2004 and 2006 and according to ExploreStemCells, “public sector funding [in the UK] for stem cell research over 2006–07 and 2007–08 will have increased to £100 million.” In addition, funding for continued development of the UK Stem Cell Bank, which, Mr. Carson explained, is leading international efforts to standardize the techniques used to characterize stem cell lines, was approved in 2006. The funds, totaling £9.2 million until 2011, will support the creation of new permanent facilities and provide a Good Manufacturing Practice facility for deriving clinical grade stem cell lines.

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