Stem cells frequently make the news because of their established and growing ability to be used in regenerative treatments. Their ability to form into new types of cells has driven research attempting to regenerate bodily systems and tissues. From athletes attempting to treat injuries to proven cancer treatments, stem cells are a beacon of hope for people who may not have had favorable treatment options only a few years ago.
However, as the field of stem cell medicine advances, many researchers have expanded their focus to other applications, including drug discovery and drug testing, even making the way scientists develop and assess the safety of drugs more efficient.
Stem Cells Can Provide Better Research Models
One advantage of stem cells in drug discovery studies is that they make better models of human disease and drug reactions than animal models. Mice and rats are commonly used in medical research, but human beings have substantially different bodily processes than these rodents.
A difference in heart rate, for example, can result in dramatically different interactions of a drug in a rodent versus a human. This is one reason why there are often reports of medical breakthroughs after these rodent studies, that never end up impacting real medical practice when the principles are applied to human beings. Stem cells can offer better research models.
Some of these models are called “organoids” — complex 3D cell structures used to mimic a specific organ within the human body. For decades, scientists have tested drugs on flat surfaces, like a petri dish, essentially creating a 2D environment. While many breakthroughs have been made through that method, the human body cells communicate with each other in a 3D environment. Organoids can be used to more quickly learn whether a drug is effective or ineffective, toxic or safe, in a particular organ.
Organoids can be formed in a number of ways, but pluripotent stem cells taken from a patient are the future of organoid testing. By using stem cells from a particular patient population, scientists can test a drug in a much more specific application setting. That again means testing a drug in conditions that are much closer to real treatment, while making the entire process more efficient — which means cheaper and faster.
A Better Way to Test Toxicity
A crucial concern when developing a drug is toxicity, the side effects a drug can have on an organ or system in the body. Cardiotoxicity, or the effects of a drug on the heart, is an obvious concern as arrhythmias and sudden death are possible if a drug reacts poorly in the human body. Researchers attempt to test for any possible cardiotoxic effects in the lab, but they are not always 100% accurate.
Professor Christine Mummery notes that cardiotoxicity is very difficult to detect in mice studies, but newer tests using human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to mimic the effects of a drug on human heart cells are becoming better defined and much more effective1.
The same technology is being used to test “systemic toxicity of certain kinds of drugs,” as Dr. Glyn Stacey of the UK’s National Institute for Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC) explains. Drugs can successfully pass a number of tests for safety, but still have chronic effects that cannot be discovered without using a human cell system. Stem cells are thus helping researchers better predict long-term consequences of the use of a drug, with less risk to real patients.
The Future of Stem Cell Medicine
We think it is important to highlight the important strides in stem cell research that are poised to change all medical practice, likely expanding the use of various types of stem cells over the coming years and decades. The regenerative potential of stem cells is important and has already revolutionized treatment for serious conditions like leukemia. However, drug discovery is another treatment area that has the potential to seriously change how we think about a number of illnesses.
Americord’s stated mission is to help people live healthier, longer lives, and to support an industry that is revolutionizing medical practice. We’re very excited to see these breakthroughs and will continue to highlight them as they happen because it is important for people to understand how the world of medicine is changing for the better.