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Stem cell support

Issue 18 | November 2006

Report: Diane Squires
Photography: Melissa Di Ciero and Greg Ford

Building support: Researchers Mr Raphael Weidenfeld (in foreground) and Professor Graham Jenkin from the Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories.

Researchers in the Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories are using new techniques to build matrices on which lung cells can be grown. They hope their work will ultimately allow whole organs to be grown.

As many as one in 1000 people are affected by chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder (COPD), but to date there is no known cure.

The disorder encompasses a number of respiratory tract diseases including emphysema and chronic bronchitis and can also be caused by exposure to airway irritants such as coal dust or solvents. People with the disorder have increasing difficulty breathing.

Monash scientists believe that if they could replace the tracheal and bronchial tubes, which link the back of the throat with the lungs, this debilitating disease could be alleviated, giving relief to millions of people worldwide.

Researchers Mr Raphael Weidenfeld and Professor Graham Jenkin from the Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories have started by working with Professor Alan Trounson's stem cells and lung regeneration group on growing lung cells on synthetic matrices that mimic the body's internal cellular support structures.

In studies undertaken last year, the team managed to sustain growth of a normal lung cell line and lung cancer cells on synthetic matrices over four weeks.

It is a promising start to what could eventually provide a solution to the need for respiratory tube, and even full lung, transplants.

In 2005, Mr Weidenfeld worked with Dr John Forsythe from the Department of Materials Engineering where he learnt a technique, called electro-spinning, for developing matrices that support cells for growth.

The matrix mimics the fibres of collagen and laminin, which are used to support cells in the body.

To grow lung cells, scrapings are taken from the inside the throat and are grown in flasks until they are ready to be transferred to the scaffolds.

Mr Weidenfeld says that not surprisingly, the cancer cells grew remarkably well in the matrix.

"We expected they would grow well, because that is what cancer cells are programmed to do," he says. "Within about a week they had completely covered the matrices.

"We didn't get the same rate of growth from the normal lung cell line as from the lung cancer cell line, but we managed to maintain growth over the month-long study."

In July this year, the group signed an agreement with PolyNovo Biomaterials Pty Ltd to test the suitability of its novel matrix material, NovaSorb™, as another potential scaffold for stem cells.

NovaSorb™ is a biodegradable polyurethane polymer that has been developed to help repair cartilage. This is the first time it has been tested in stem cell science.

Professor Jenkin says that because all tissues have different attributes, such as elasticity, cell density and a unique 3D appearance, different scaffolding structures may be better suited to growing different cell types.

"NovaSorb is more versatile and stronger than the electro-spun polymer we used previously," he says. "So it may be more suitable to growing lung cells."

Although the work has focused on lung cells, the team is also looking at appropriate scaffolding to grow a range of cells including amnion-derived stem cells, cord blood mesenchymal and hematopoeitic stem cells and embryonic stem cell derivatives.

Professor Jenkin says the tests will help determine which scaffolds combine best with which cells to develop complex tissues and possibly even organ structures.

"Thirty per cent of people worldwide won't receive the transplant they need because there aren't enough organs, but with the correct cell support network and tissues, we could generate whole new organs," he says.