Researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in California said their findings are expected to provide scientists with useful new techniques, moving the field closer to the day when stem cells can be used for therapeutic purposes.
"This paper addresses a long-standing mystery," said Associate Professor Sheng Ding, senior author of the study. "Scientists have been puzzled by why human embryonic stem cells die at a critical step in the culture process. In addition to posing a question in fundamental biology, this created a huge technical challenge in the lab."
In the study, the team discovered two synthetic small molecule drugs (named Thiazovivin and Pyrintegrin) can be added to a human stem cell culture and each individually prevent the death of the cells. The team said it also unraveled the mechanisms by which the compounds promote stem cell survival, shedding light on a previously unknown aspect of stem cell biology.
"The current techniques to keep these cells alive are tedious and labor-intensive," said Ding. "Keeping the cells alive is so difficult that some people are discouraged from entering the field. It is very frustrating experience for everyone."
The complex research is reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.