Increasing stem cells to save lives

22 May 2018 | Research
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Laboratory-synthesised compound C7 has the ability to expand the amount of umbilical cord blood stem cells

Researchers from NUS Pharmacy, Duke-NUS Medical School (Duke-NUS), National Cancer Centre Singapore and Singapore General Hospital (SGH) have developed an efficient, fast and potentially cost-effective technique to expand the amount of haematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (HSPC) in umbilical cord blood, which can be harvested to treat more than 80 diseases, including blood cancers as well as several metabolic and immune disorders. This is the first such technique developed and patented in Singapore.

Currently, the volume of HSPC that can be harvested from the umbilical cord is insufficient for adults, who make up the majority of patients who need such transplants. In these cases, HSPCs will need to be expanded for clinical use.

C7, a small molecule originally designed and synthesised by Professor Christina Chai and her team from NUS Pharmacy for stem cell differentiation studies, holds the key to this important breakthrough in stem cell technology. A research team led by Duke-NUS Associate Professor William Hwang screened the library of synthetic substances developed by Prof Chai’s team and discovered that C7 has the ability to expand umbilical cord blood stem cells.

There are patients who are unable to find a fully matched bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells. For these patients, umbilical cord blood is the only source of grafts. However, when such patients find an umbilical cord blood graft, they may not undergo the transplantation due to the low cell numbers. Expanded umbilical cord blood would be a life-saving option.

The multidisciplinary team found that the addition of C7 yielded more HSPC within a shorter duration, and required fewer biological promoters and less upstream processing. 

Nano-technology based drug delivery specialist Associate Professor Gigi Chiu from NUS Pharmacy, as well as Dr Sudipto Bari and Dr Zhong Qixing, both of whom recently received their Doctor of Philosophy degree from NUS Pharmacy, also contributed to this discovery.

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The research team includes (from left) Assoc Prof Hwang, Prof Chai, Assoc Prof Chiu, Dr Zhong and Dr Bari (Photo: NCCS)

With this significant advancement, more patients can soon benefit from umbilical cord blood transplants.

“There are patients who are unable to find a fully matched bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells. For these patients, umbilical cord blood is the only source of grafts,” said Assoc Prof Hwang, who is also Medical Director, National Cancer Centre Singapore.

“However, when such patients find an umbilical cord blood graft, they may not undergo the transplantation due to the low cell numbers. Expanded umbilical cord blood would be a life-saving option,” he added.

The invention has since been patented, and the team has been awarded an Innovation and an Ignition grant of $244,000 from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology Innovation Centre, as well as a $250,000 Innovation to Develop grant from the National Health Innovation Centre.

“Although these are early days, we are very excited over the possibilities that our technology can offer. This work is a great example of how a team can achieve so much more than the individual,” said Prof Chai, who is also Head of NUS Pharmacy.

The research team aims to start clinical trials by mid-2019, which will be conducted in collaboration with SGH clinicians.