A new age of personalized medicine could be on the horizon after a major discovery by stem cell researchers.
Scientists developed a new technique that enables large-scale studies of the relationship between human genetics and biology.
It is hoped the latest development, reported in the journal Nature Communications, will make therapies cheaper, faster and safer.
The Australian team’s innovative “village in a dish” can grow and analyze stem cells from large numbers of donors simultaneously – making studies 100 times better.
Senior author Professor Joseph Powell, of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, said: “Our village model provides a powerful way to understand how genetic differences between people influence health and disease.
“Even though we share the majority of our DNA, variations in our genes lead to unique traits and responses. The village system captures this diversity at a large scale, revealing how genetic differences between people affect the complex mechanisms underlying biology and disease.”
The human body is built of cells with a specific role – nerve cells, liver cells, muscle cells – and that role is fixed.
However, stem cells can become any other type of cell, and they have become a major field of research in medicine for their potential to regenerate the body.
Embryos are one, ethically charged. Nobel Prize-winning research discovered skin cells could be “genetically reprogrammed” to become stem cells, or induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).
Current methods rely on a process called “bulk RNA sequencing.” It averages the varied gene expression of different cell types into a single measure.
This masks potential differences between individual cells or cell types and can provide an incomplete or biased view of gene expression in the sample, potentially leading to inaccurate or misleading conclusions.
Powell and colleagues culture stem cells from multiple donors in a single dish – exposing them to single-cell sequencing.
It retains key individual features – scaling experiments to give an accurate snapshot of a whole population.
The village-in-a-dish method enables large-scale studies of human organ systems that are normally inaccessible.
Generating organ-specific cells from many individuals removes the need to obtain living tissue samples of those organs from donors and overcomes the limitations of studying only a few individuals’ cells.
For example, it could reveal insights into cardiac conditions by generating heart cells from thousands of people, which would be impossible with direct tissue sampling.
Powell said: “Medical research often relies on animal models, which are not perfect physiological proxies for humans.
“Induced pluripotent stem cells, which can be generated from a patient blood sample, provide the complete DNA profile of the patient and then can be differentiated into almost any cell type in the human body.
“From a basic science perspective, the stem-cell-based system is a powerful means to gain insights into the relationship between human genetics and biology that can’t be achieved with animal models.”
It opens the door to fast-tracked clinical trials to predict how groups of patients may respond to drugs, enabling the discovery of new treatments.
First author Dr. Drew Neavin, from the same lab, said: “The translational potential of this research is particularly compelling.
“By studying cells from many individuals at once, we can identify genetic factors that influence disease and treatment response at an unprecedented scale.”
She added: “An example is assessing cardiac toxicity, or Lewy body accumulation in Parkinson’s disease across hundreds of cell lines derived from patients.
“Rather than reflecting single individuals, such studies would reveal shared and distinct responses among genetic groups. The insights could then inform clinical trials by pre-selecting patient populations likely to benefit.
“Overall, this approach could transform our ability to translate stem cell science into precision treatments.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
Edited by Saba Fatima and Asad Ali