Scotland

'Tuneable' gels to aid stem cell research

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Media captionA new Scottish research project aims to help scientists better understand cancer and stem cells in 3D

A new Scottish research project is aiming to help scientists better understand cancer and stem cells - live and in 3D.

The technique - the result of a collaboration between Strathclyde University and one of its spinout companies - could eventually be used to develop bespoke drugs tuned to individual patients.

It's a project which has cancer and stem cells in its sights. Stem cells being the basic units of life that have the capacity to turn into specialised cells like skin, brain or bone.

Until now, studying them in the laboratory has happened mainly in two dimensions - flat out in a Petri dish.

But Duncan Graham, Strathclyde University's professor of chemistry, says he wants to take things further.

"We're interested in moving this into a realistic three dimensional environment which is much more akin to what you find in the human body," he said.

"When you take a cell out of its normal environment it doesn't last very long. So we have to create an environment which will keep it alive."

Image copyright Sandy Young
Image copyright Sandy Young
Image caption The gel helps keep cells alive

That environment is a gel which will keep the cells living in three dimensions.

Which is why Prof Graham is working with a Scottish company called Biogelx.

It was spun out of Strathclyde University to provide - as they put it - "gels for your cells".

Many other companies are offering gels for cell research. But Dr Eleanore Irvine, the business development manager at Biogelx, said theirs can be "tuned" to make stem cells become the specific type of cells researchers want.

"Ours are made up of peptides - very short, biological-like building blocks," she said.

"That makes them biologically relevant but synthetically made and consistent."

Mimics the environment

Dr Irvine said the Biogelx gels are also "tuneable".

"We can tune the stiffness to access different tissue-mimicking properties.

"So if one of our customers wants to grow brain cells we'll offer a soft gel that mimics a brain-like environment.

"And we can access a range of different environments with the gels, right the way through to bone."

Image copyright Sandy Young

Strathclyde University will be contributing its expertise in Raman spectroscopy. That's a technique that can find the fingerprints of individual molecules.

The collaboration is being backed by the innovation centre for sensor and imaging systems (CENSIS), which is charged with translating Scottish research into new industries.

Prof Graham said research is currently taking place in two main areas.

"One is in understanding how stem cells differentiate.

"If we can look at this at the molecular level and try to control the differentiation more accurately, can we design systems that allow parts of the human body more faithfully?

"So we can replace parts of the body we couldn't replace before."

First step

The other area is study how cancer cells respond to treatment.

"Screening, perhaps, a patient's biopsy before we actually give the patient a drug would be a big step forward in terms of how they respond to a particular drug."

The team is hoping that could help reduce the often unpleasant effects of chemotherapy.

It can take a long time for science to become healthcare.

But this is a first step towards a new technique for predicting how potential new drugs might perform against diseases.

It'll be in the lab - but as close as it can be to real life.

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