The idea of using stem cells to heal injuries seems so obvious. If you have a spinal cord injury, why not inject some new cells that can replace the ones that are lost?
Unfortunately, the very act of injecting those cells is rife with trouble. The scraping as they move through the needle damages the cells and can even kill them. Then, once in the site of the injury, the cells can easily ooze away into other tissue, or die from the onslaught of chemicals in the injury.
Material scientists Sarah Heilshorn, PhD, is trying to help these cells with a type of gel that can protect and support them, allowing them to live long enough to possibly repair the injury. A grant from Stanford Bio-X, the pioneering interdisciplinary life sciences institute, is now helping Heilshorn and her colleagues, neurosurgeon Giles Plant, PhD, and chemical engineer Andrew Spakowitz, PhD, get the project off the ground.
In a story I wrote about the work, Heilshorn equates the gel to ketchup:
It's pretty thick, but when you bang on the bottle the sauce flows smoothly through the neck, then firms back up on the plate – a process she calls self-healing. "We want our polymers to self-heal better than ketchup," she said. "It flows a bit across the plate."
Her goal is to develop a polymer that supports the cells when they are loaded in a syringe, but then flows freely through the needle, padding and protecting the cells, then firming up quickly when it reaches the site of injury. "We don't want the cells to flow away," she says.
These Seed grants from Bio-X have been credited as part of what has made the institute so successful in bringing together people from diverse disciplines to solve biomedical problems. "The seed grants are the special Bio-X glue that brings teams of faculty from all over the university to tackle complex problems in human health using new approaches," said Carla Shatz, PhD, who directs Bio-X.
We’ll be writing about a few of the most exciting projects being funded with the recently announced 2014 Bio-X Seed grants over the next few weeks.