ECUBLENS, Switzerland, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- Stem cells are vitally important to medical researchers. Capable of becoming any other type of cell, they allow researchers study and develop treatments for a range medical problems -- from diabetes to cancer, Alzheimer's to Parkinson's.
But stem cells aren't easy to acquire, which is why the latest development out of Swiss laboratories is so important. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, or EPFL, have developed a technology that coaxes cells to revert to their stem cell beginnings.
The technology comes in gel form, and works by squeezing the cells into stem cell form.
There are several types of stem cells. The most versatile -- and thus, most useful -- are induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs. They are not pure stem cells, but adult cells that have been rewired to look and act like stem cells.
But inducing these stem cells is an intricate, time- and energy-intensive process that's not easily scaled.
Part of the problem is laboratory technologies limit the induction of stem cells to the confined two-dimensional environment of a petri dish. The gel created by EPFL scientists more closely mimics the dynamic 3D environment of the human body.
The gel also allows researchers more control over that environment. Scientists are able to manipulate the gel to pressure the cells into taking on new forms.
"We try to simulate the three-dimensional environment of a living tissue and see how it would influence stem cell behavior," Matthias Lutolf, head of the EPFL lab where the gel was developed, said in a press release. "But soon we were surprised to see that cell reprogramming is also influenced by the surrounding microenvironment."
Massaging the gel to manipulate the stiffness and density of the cells' surroundings made them more easily induced into new forms. Researchers aren't entirely sure why, they just know it has tremendous potential.
"Each cell type may have a 'sweet spot' of physical and chemical factors that offer the most efficient transformation," says Lutolf. "Once you find it, it is a matter of resources and time to create stem cells on a larger scale."
Unlike a petri dish, the gel can be used to stimulate adult cells and induce stem cells in greater quantities.
Researchers published a new study on their discovery, published this week in the journal Nature Materials.