Mass producing custom stem cells and advances in desktop testing.

19 April 2014

Let's cut through some FUD: Human stem cells are pretty easy to come by. Embryos have not been involved in the process for well over ten years that I can recall off the top of my head, and probably closer to twenty. Every human body has stockpiles of them that can be extracted with minor surgical procedures. The procedures in question usually involves scarily long needles that reach deeply enough inside the body to extract them, which might be why research into re-embryonization of other kinds of cells has proceeded at a good clip. To summarize, medical science has been discovering and perfecting ways of turning cells of different kinds (like skin cells) back into stem cells, whereupon they can be coaxed into differentiating into other kinds of cells. Recently, scientists at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology at A*STAR have developed a method of de-differentiating blood cells back into puripotent stem cells which can then be caused to replicate and eventually turn into just about any other kind of cell a body is capable of incorporating. Most interesting is that they only need a sufficient sample of blood that one can get from pricking one's finger with a needle. In theory, you or I could use a lancet to gather a few drops of blood, drip them into a vial, and mail them off to a lab to be cultured for later use.

This dovetails with an article in the Smithsonian that came out last month that I've been sitting on while waiting for the right kind of information to pair it with. One Elizabeth Holmes has spent the past decade working on something she calls Theranos, a technology and set of techniques which make it possible to execute several dozen diagnostic tests simultaneously on a single drop of blood collected with a fingerstick instead of several vials of blood drawn by a trained phlebotomist. Her technology is proprietary so we don't have a whole lot of information on how it works, but I think we can make an inference or two. The extremely small quantity of blood required (one one-thousandth of the blood required for a full blood panel) suggests that they're using some sort of advanced lab-on-a-chip technology (which is pretty much what it says on the tin - full laboratory procedures built onto a single chip rather than a lab workbench loaded with equipment). The speed required to run the tests is also at least an order of magnatude faster - 30 tests can be executed in less than a day (including follow-up assessments and double checking) as opposed to a week or so in conventional labs. The results are sent back to the patient's physician or specialist for interpretation, but I see no reason why the patient can be CC'd on the e-mail as well. The list of tests is quite impressive: Everything from serum amphetamine levels to anti-thyroglobulin antibodies, a basic metabolic panel to blood typing, to DNA antibody detection and HIV screening. It is also very interesting to note that the costs of the tests are small fractions of what they would cost at a lab or in a hospital - quantitative HIV screening, for example, costs $59us, and a comprehensive metabolic panel costs about $6us. If I happen to be in the area of one of their offices I'll get some tests done and write an article about it. In other miniature biotech lab news, Project ATHENA (Advanced Tissue-engineered Human Ectypal Network Analyzer) has announced that they're developing homo minutus - miniature versions of human organs each about the size of a cellphone that are alive, interconnected to one another, and sufficiently functional to be used as a desktop drug and chemical toxicity testing system. A project of the DTRA (Defense Threat Reduction Agency), it was initiated at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a $19mus, five year research program involving multiple academic institutions. The idea behind it is that rather than using animals (which only approximate one or two human biosystems per species) or cell cultures grown in vitro (which have different dynamics than full organisms or organs) the desktop human (as they're calling it) is a sufficiently complex system of cultured human organs that it'll react to chemicals in a way that more closely approximates a human being. Project ATHENA aims to construct a heart that pumps blood, lungs that exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide, kidneys that filter blood, and livers that metabolize compounds much more closely than any systems in existence right now. A computing hardware and software platform that monitors the state of ATHENA in near-realtime is also in the works so that data can be collected and analyzed as part of larger laboratory efforts. The R&D team say that they are optimizing for metabolic efficiency and getting some surprising changes of scale in the bargain; their prototype organ cultures are several orders of magnatude smaller than the real thing, which implies that they'll be much simpler to store and care for when they're not in use at the moment. The research team further claims that they've married a next-generation ion mobility mass spectrometer to the ATHENA's circulatory system, which allows them to assay the chemical state and composition of the system at millisecond intervals for thousands of bioactive molecules simultaneously to track changes in the state of the biosystem due to toxicity. If this project pans out, not only will we have a highly sophisticated toxicity analysis system, but I suspect that advances in tissue culturing will come out of the project that will lead to the construction in vitro of yet more sophisticated human organs that might eventually be transplantable. This is definitely an R&D effort to keep an eye on.