Human pluripotent stem cells (hPSC) have the capacity to differentiate into every cell in the adult body, and they are thus a highly promising source of differentiated cells for the investigation and treatment of numerous human diseases. For example, neurodegenerative disorders are an increasing healthcare problem that affect the lives of millions of Americans, and Parkinson’s Disease (PD) in particular exacts enormous personal and economic tolls. Expanding hPSCs and directing their differentiation into dopaminergic neurons, the cell type predominantly lost in PD, promises to yield cells that can be used in cell replacement therapies. However, developing technologies to create the enormous numbers of safe and healthy dopaminergic neurons required for clinical development and implementation represents a bottleneck in the field, because the current systems for expanding and differentiating hPSCs face numerous challenges including difficulty in scaling up cell production, concerns with the safety of some materials used in the current cell culture systems, and limited reproducibility of such systems.
This project has two central aims: 1) To determine whether a fully defined, three dimensional (3D) synthetic matrix for expanding immature hPSCs can rapidly and scaleably generate large cell numbers for subsequent differentiation into potentially any cell , and 2) To investigate whether a 3D, synthetic matrix can support differentiation into healthy, implantable human DA neurons in high quantities and yields. In the first year of this project, we have made progress in both aims. Specifically, we are conducting high throughput studies to optimize matrix properties in aim 1, and we have developed a material formulation in aim 2 that supports a level of DA differentiation that we are now beginning to optimize with a high throughput approach.
This blend of stem cell biology, neurobiology, materials science, and bioengineering to create “synthetic stem cell niche” technologies with broad applicability therefore addresses critical challenges in regenerative medicine.