Doctors attending training sessions at Utah-based Advanced Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI) learn how to extract stem cell material, process it, and inject it into a given site in order to promote healing. Such treatments are growing in popularity for everything from sports injuries to osteoarthritis. But what if we could use similar procedures to treat things like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s? That is the goal of ongoing research that combines nanotechnology with stem cell procedures.

As effective as stem cell therapy can be for orthopedic injuries and pain management, science has thus far been limited by the capacity of autologous stem cells to do what they do. While a doctor can use stem cell material taken from bone marrow or fat tissue to treat osteoarthritis for example, that same material would be ineffective for neurological treatments. In other words, it would not help patients suffering from Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

The holy grail of modern stem cell research is to find a way to take any kind of stem cell material from a patient and reprogram it to grow into whatever kind of tissue is required. This is where nanotechnology comes in.

Nanotechnology and Bio-Manufacturing

If you were to visit a manufacturing facility that transformed aluminum into a wide range of auto parts, you would see a vast inventory of aluminum bars and sheets just waiting to be cast or pressed. Some of the aluminum would be melted and poured into molds in order to cast engine blocks and other large parts. Sheets of aluminum would be fed into hydraulic presses to form other kinds of parts. You would see a single raw material arriving at the plant in many different forms being used to create new parts.

Pairing nanotechnology with stem cell research aims to do the same sort of thing. The idea is to take stem cells from various kinds of tissue and then manipulate those cells to create completely different kinds of tissue. At Arizona State University’s (ASU) Biodesign Institute, they are well on their way to coming up with some revolutionary technologies that will change the way we use stem cells for medical treatments.

The ASU team has already figured out how to use DNA and other biological building blocks to build nanotechnology structures that could eventually be used to program stem cells for any number of purposes. The team has built biological containers capable of delivering drugs to target tissues. They have built bio-robots and electronic components.

DNA Triggers for Genetic Programing

One of the things the ASU team is working on now is a process for converting skin cells back into stem cells that can then be programmed to generate new kinds of tissue. The researchers believe they have identified a way to use DNA to accomplish this goal. Once they have the base cells to work with, they can use DNA triggers to turn genetic switches on and off, thereby determining what the stem cells will eventually grow into.

Possible applications of the nanotechnology include the previously mentioned Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In theory, doctors will eventually be able to inject engineered stem cells into the brains of patients, use DNA triggers to turn them on, then turn them back off once enough tissue has been generated. Proving the theory to be truly achievable would be nothing short of a revolutionary breakthrough in treating dementia-related diseases.

Now is an exciting time to be involved in stem cell research and nanotechnology. Combining the two will eventually achieve the desired results, according to the ASU team. It is but a matter of time.

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Sara T. Loving

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