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'I want to regenerate an entire leg by 2030' | Doctor's synthetic artificial stem cells research could revolutionize healing

A doctor at UConn Health invented a new class of stem cells as he works to revolutionize healing.

FARMINGTON, Conn. — If you have any scars on your body, then you also have a tangible reminder that the body does not have a perfect healing mechanism. It’s good, but it can be better. That potential is inside us already.

The future may be less about healing, and more about re-growing. Leading that push is a doctor at UConn Health in Farmington who has a grand ambition, one that could become the future of medicine.

Dr. Cato Laurencin is credited with essentially inventing the field of Regenerative Engineering and has authored and edited several books on the subject.

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Credit: UConn Health
Dr. Cato T. Laurencin is an expert in the field of Regenerative Engineering.

During an interview with FOX61, Laurencin explained the progress he’s making, while pointing at a series of MRI images of knee joints in rats.

The pictures are taped on an easel, inside a conference room that had to be adapted into an office in order to accommodate just a fraction of the awards and recognitions he’s received.

At one point during the interview, he shows some results – a bar chart of results for lab rats who had undergone various treatments for arthritis, along with a control subject and a healthy subject for comparison.

The control rat, who got no treatment, had 30% degeneration in the joint being studied. Two other rats, who had undergone different stem cell treatments, fared much better.

“We found that it actually reversed the osteoarthritis that took place,” Laurencin said.

Credit: UConn Health
SASC cells helped keep the bright red surfaces indicative of health cartilage in this frontal section of the joint.

One of the rats underwent a more traditional stem cell treatment using stem cells derived from adipose – or fat – tissue. That rat showed only a 10% degeneration.

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Laurencin and his team got the same results using a whole new class of stem cells – one that he invented.

“When we think about stem cells, we can we know there are embryonic stem cells, there are adult stem cells, and of course, there are these induced pluripotent stem cells that are there,” he said. “And we think we've created a fourth class, a new class of stem cells, and we call them synthetic artificial stem cells or SASC [pronounced ‘sassy’] cells.”

Credit: UConn Health
By comparison, this control group rat showed significant thinning of the cartilage, which shows up in red on this image.

Laurencin said the rat study is early confirmation that SASC cells are just as effective as natural stem cells, but being artificial, they have advantages – or more accurately, fewer drawbacks.

“First of all, most stem cells you have to use are your own from your own body, so you have to harvest it from your own body, which means from a bone,” Laurencin explained. “You have to do a bone aspirate, which can be very uncomfortable and very, very painful.”

He said harvesting fat-derived stem cells is time-consuming.

“That's still a procedure to be able to extract the fat cells, then you have to actually cultivate them, and you have to isolate them,” Laurencin said.

Credit: UConn Health
Both SASC and fat-derived stem cells reversed degeneration from 30 percent to about 10 percent in the rat subjects.

Then, there is the issue of quality control. Laurencin said natural stem cells have natural variations which make them less uniform, and more likely to be ineffective because of their age or the health of a donor.

Also, somewhat counter-intuitively, SASC cells, being artificial, should be less likely to be rejected by the immune system, Laurencin said. This is because they are engineered to not have the antigens that natural stem cells have.

If you’re worried that artificial stem cells will grow artificial body parts, don’t be.

Laurencin said SASC cells, like traditional stem cells, do 90 to 95% of their work repairing the musculoskeletal system through the paracrine effect. In short, the cells mostly don’t differentiate and make new tissues on their own.

Instead, they secrete substances called factors, which signal the body to begin the repair and regeneration work on its own. The cells themselves have a comparatively short shelf life.

“The quality of the polymeric material that we use – it’s polylactic acid, and glycolic acid – actually degrades on its own, and it degrades to natural byproducts,” Laurencin said. “And we know that the biological factors eventually do their work, and then they go away.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Laurencin said their artificial uniformity makes them much more easily tailorable to different potential treatments. Human projects are coming.

“The next project we're working on is SASC shoulder, a SASC shoulder where we try to regenerate the rotator cuff, especially for people who have, say, a partial tear that's painful that that means they may not need a full surgery,” he said. “We’re excited about using it for a variety of different conditions.”

Laurencin said it’s possible that SASC cells could be used to regenerate bones, nerves, and cardiac tissue, among other things. However, his ambitions are much greater.

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His ultimate goal sounds almost impossible, but he’s dead serious and said he’s got the government grants to back it up.

“The work that we're doing is part of a larger project, which is called the Hartford Engineering a Limb Project,” he said. “So, we, here, are working to regenerate an entire limb by 2030.”

Yes, you read that correctly.

“I want to regenerate an entire leg by 2030,” he said.

Time will tell if he and his team are successful. He said he certainly understands the challenges.

“I want to make it clear, it's not a panacea, there's a lot of work to go in terms of the work that we've done,” Laurencin said. “It's taken years for us to get here, and it will take years and some dollars to get to the next level, but I'm excited and optimistic about where we're going.”

Tim Lammers is an anchor at FOX61 News. He can be reached at Tlammers@fox61.com. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


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