A deal between university researchers and an Australian biotech company opens the door to stem cell super-breeds engineered to fight diseases from arthritis to cancer.
Researchers at Sydney’s Macquarie University say they have developed a world-first method of identifying stem cells that pump out large concentrations of disease-fighting proteins known as cytokines. The breakthrough, to be announced today, could see liposuction byproducts harnessed in injections for anything from a dicky knee to a dodgy heart.
Team leader Ewa Goldys said that the technology could be deployed against a variety of illnesses. "Anyone can produce stem cells from fat, but we are going to have some very special cells that nobody else has," said Professor Goldys, deputy director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics.
"We could really be looking at a ... global breakthrough."
The scientists have teamed up with Australian company Regeneus to commercialise the technology.
Regeneus chief executive John Martin said the technology could give Australia an edge in the regenerative medicine market, which is forecast to be worth $US67.5 billion ($94bn) by 2020.
"(Our) new therapy will hopefully be able to grab a share of that market because it’s a better product and has no side-effects," he said.
Several years ago, scientists discovered that stem cells — which had generally been harvested from discarded human embryos or reprogrammed from adult tissues — existed throughout the adult body in the skin, hair follicles and fat. But Mr Martin said the "real trick" lay in pinpointing stem cells that were therapeutically useful.
Stem cells are identified based on protein "markers" on the cell walls, but current instruments cannot detect which of them secrete cytokines in high numbers. "This technology will allow cells to be chosen based on what they actually do," Mr Martin said.
The partnership earns Macquarie royalties on sales of stem-cell analysis kits retailing at about $1000 apiece.
Mr Martin said this would be only the first application, with Regeneus also planning to deploy the technology against conditions such as osteoarthritis.
He said stem cells were enormously promising for pain management, because they treated the underlying causes rather than "masking" the symptoms, and did not trigger an immune response. Cell therapies will replace steroids as the "injection of choice", he said.
Regeneus could also licence the technology to pharmaceutical giants to develop new regenerative medicine treatments for dermatitis, auto-immune conditions, heart disease and cancer.
Under the concept, stem cells extracted from people’s fat tissue could be reinjected into their own problem areas such as arthritic joints. But Mr Martin said the cells would more likely be mass-produced from single donors.
Next month Regeneus is taking the technology to Japan as part of an Austrade mission to explore opportunities in the country’s flourishing regenerative medicine industry. The Abe administration has made regenerative medicine a pillar of its national growth strategy, and relaxed rules on clinical trials so that new therapies can be raced to market.