The study was funded by UNC’s Research Opportunities Initiative, a program founded by the North Carolina General Assembly.
“The (Research Opportunities Iniatitive) was a very strategic infusion of funding into areas that are of importance to the state,” said Erin Hopper, research director for the UNC system.
The research, led by associate professor Ke Cheng of N.C. State, focuses on regenerative medicine — specifically the benefits of artificial cardiac stem cells in comparison with natural stem cell therapy.
“We took the cargo and the shell of the stem cell and packaged it into a biodegradable particle,” Cheng said in an N.C. State press release detailing the research project.
Hopper said the project applied engineering principles to medical problems, as part of the Research Opportunities Initiative. The research was made possible by a strong departmental relationship between N.C. State and UNC, she said.
“Stem cell therapy provides an approach for diseases that can’t be cured by pharmaceutical means,” Cheng said.
He said weaknesses associated with natural stem cell therapy can include: the provocation of an immune response, the growth of tumors on the stem cells later in their life cycle and difficulty in the processing, manufacturing and storage of stem cells used.
The press release said natural stem cells are very fragile, so the storage process is complex.
“The significance of our research is that the artificial stem cells can overcome all these three caveats,” Cheng said.
Synthetic stem cells are stronger than natural ones and can undergo harsher conditions, the press release said. The artificial cells also do not need to be obtained from the patient’s natural cells and are more easily controlled than traditional ones.
The research created a particle that can mimic the function of natural cells while eliminating various failures in traditional stem cell therapy.
“Everything is going artificial these days,” Cheng said.
He said, like any drug or therapy, the research must go through various regulatory steps to ensure safety and efficacy before it is applied or used in human trials.
“We hope we can bring this to the clinics in five to 10 years but it takes some time,” he said.
Cheng said when the science world learns about his team’s artificial stem cell research, a new platform for furthering the research will be created.
“The system is still not perfect but it’s a tangible first step to a new era in this research,” he said.