Hyderabad: That stem cells have gained wide popularity as a means of regenerative medicine is not unknown. Three scientists at the Indian Institute of Science have shown the way forward by developing a method to form heart and brain cells through electric stimulation, which becomes useful when these organs are damaged.
Giridhar Madras, professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Bikramjit Basu, professor at the Materials Research Centre, worked with Greeshma Thrivikraman, a PhD scholar with the Laboratory for Biomaterials, Materials Research Centre and Centre for Nanoscience & Engineering at IISc to derive this method.
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can be transformed into any type of cell. To do so, typically, a concoction of chemicals is used and nutrients are fed to these stem cells to help them grow into a variety of cell types like bone, muscle, heart and nerve cells.
“If you have tissue loss or damage, what you can do is take your stem cells, grow it on a synthetic support in a lab setting to form a tissue, and implant it later in a patient. Besides this established process, we have found that stem cells can also be differentiated into nerve and heart cells by the application of physical forces,” said Thrivikraman.
This method could be more useful, when a person suffers from stroke or heart failure. Lack of nerve cells and heart cells when the organs are damaged makes it difficult to produce various cells from stem cells.
“If you have nervous tissue damage following a stroke, it is really hard to isolate adequate number of nerve cells from your body and transplant it into your brain. So instead, what we can do is isolate stem cells from blood or bone marrow and make them specialized to function as nerve cells. Then we transplant these cells to recreate the lost tissue,” said Thrivikraman.
Eletroactive cells in our body—for instance, nervous and cardiac tissues—can convert electrical signal into information. This is similar to how the nerve cells work—convert information to electrical signals.
“It’s a physical process, rather than a chemical process. Usually, it is very difficult to efficiently convert stem cells to specialized cells via a chemical route. This is because the added chemicals can cause side effects to neighbouring healthy cells. On the contrary, physical methods can be localized to the affected area and it does not cause any ill-effects,” said Thrivikraman.
The researchers said that these new cells are mimicked outside the body and can be transplanted later for people with heart failure or a stroke. It is also useful in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.