Every day, I walk past people being hurt by diseases, affecting different parts of the body that just make their lives 10x harder. Technology has grown exponentially in such a short amount of time, but we still can’t cure these victims. Why?
We’ve come so far, we need only a little more to help millions around the world. There are so many smart people around the world, but we can’t solve these fundamental issues that have been killing humans since the beginning of time. Why?
In today’s world, so many new technologies are being discovered and developed, one of them being stem cells. Stem cells are basically supercells that have the enhanced ability to reproduce, clone and mature into different types of cells; all of which come in handy when dealing with degenerative diseases that create a population of dead or damaged cells. There are so many diseases that stem cells could be applied to as we speak, but there’s one in mind that we are farthest from curing with stem cells: Alzheimer’s.
I’m Valmik, and I want to help billions through stem cell applications.
If you don’t understand what I mean by stem cells or have a really faint idea about what it is, don’t worry! Just check out my last article on it here: https://medium.com/advances-in-biological-science/stem-cells-future-of-therapeutics-c72c7e980f83
Really quickly, before we dive into a future of possibilities and cures we need to know what we’re dealing with here:
Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia, a general term for memory loss and cognitive abilities to a point where it interferes with daily life, and usually affects people over the age of 65. In some cases, this degenerative disease has seen to impact people under the age of 65, Early-onset Alzheimer’s, and truly makes everyday life harder than it needs to be. The brain is the only organ that’s directly affected, but studying where exactly in the brain it impacts help scientists learn about how the disease can be treated.
The Hippocampus is the first part of the brain to be affected by this degenerative disease which impacts the person’s memory encoding and retrieval.
Imagine waking up thirsty as hell and reaching over to your bedside counter for a glass of water, except you can’t. You’re trying your hardest, but you just can’t. Trying to remember how you got to work in the morning or why you’re even there, these are simple things that we overlook every day but cause the biggest inconveniences for those suffering from this terrible disease.
Ugh, if only treating diseases was easy. But it’s one of the biggest challenges in the world (which is why I’m here learning about them), let’s put it in two big steps.
Looking for disease cures is awfully similar to how soccer teams run their offense (another challenge I like 😉), there are two crucial parts:
- Getting the ball in the net (TREATMENT)
- How the ball enters the net ( DELIVERY )
The main focus of the offense is to get the ball inside the opposition’s net but to do that, they must think about how they are going to score, like what type of shot or a special strategy. Whatever it may be, in the end, the score depends equally on the strategy.
Coming back from that sports metaphor (I feel like they make the best metaphors 🤷♂️), we can see a similarity in stem cell therapies for brain diseases; where the actual stem cell treatment inside the host is scoring the goal and the delivery method is how we shoot the ball, the reason the biggest therapeutical institutes in the world are having problems with stem cell therapies in the brain is that we are unable to effectively deliver the drug. The treatment is completely useless without a proper delivery method, just like scoring is impossible without shooting the ball.
Just before we jump into problems vs solutions, there’s a specific term you need to keep in mind:
Blood-Brain Barrier (BBB): a natural filtering mechanism that moderates what type of cells (in the blood) can go from the capillaries → brain, spinal cord tissue. (Image above)
The biggest challenge for stem cell therapies that regard the brain is getting the stem cells to the brain (delivery).
Why? Shouldn’t the stem cells that are derived from the patient be accepted? Why do we even need to use induced pluripotent stem cells(iPS cells) or any other type of stem cells?
The BBB only accepts mesenchymal stem cells and neural stem cells that can be derived from the patient itself, and that’s why getting stem cells to the brain is a problem. These two types of stem cells are very hard and have a limited population within the body to extract for treatment, where if we use different types of stem cells like iPS cells then we can create stem cells from virtually any other cell in the body. Here’s the comparison:
Using conventional stem cells (neural and mesenchymal stem cells):
Extraction → Culture → Growth → Treatment (8+ months)
Newer stem cell treatments (iPS Cells) :
Faster extraction (usually skin cell) → Reprogram (full growth within a day) → Treatment (3–4 weeks)
That’s where we started looking at different combinations of powerful technology, most cures don’t just take one type of technology but often involve strategic combinations of other exponential technologies. That’s where I stumbled upon stem cell nanotechnology, where we take two incredibly powerful technologies and combine them to achieve solutions. The stem cell part is focused on the actual treatment/regeneration at the site of disease, while the nanotech part of the combination is focused on getting the stem cells inside the brain or past the BBB.
Let’s get at the specifics, how is stem cell nanotech structured, how does it work? Specifically, how does the nanotech part work?
We already know what the stem cells would do once at the site of degeneration, if you’re unfamiliar with this, check out the article linked here (https://bit.ly/32ci2DA) and then come back 😄.
Several types of nanoparticles have been experimented with for treatments, but there’s a specific one we’re going to be focusing on: Solid Lipid Nanoparticles (SLN). Why these out of all?
Solid Lipid Nanoparticles, there’s a specific term in this name that gives it all away:
LIPID is the term that describes “fat” within the body, in essence, the delivery method that uses lipids serves as a disguise for the stem cells and gets them to the brain.
These fats are easily dissolved within the BBB and serve as an ideal delivery method for stem cell treatments.
Back to the soccer reference, our strategy currently sucks, it sucks so much we haven’t been able to score at all. That’s where nanotechnology comes in, it gives the ability to control microscopic organisms and we plan on using it make stem cells undetectable by the BBB. Nanoparticles that cover the stem cells (the drug) would bind themselves to one of the cells that penetrate the BBB. But what type of cells would the nanoparticles have to attach itself to?
Several cells carry the privilege (or just get in anyway) of crossing the blood-brain barrier:
Fat-soluble molecules are molecules that consist of only cholesterol, they dissolve in the lipid portion of the membrane. That’s how they diffuse in and out of the cell.
Tumor Cells often penetrate the BBB when the person is building up said tumors or disease. These cells cause degeneration in parts of the brain.
Both of these cells provide opportunities for nanoparticle capsules to “latch on” and hitch a ride to bypass the BBB.
When it comes to the actual technology, nanomaterials(masses of nanoparticles) have properties that allow them to be controlled at such a microscopic level. Let’s quickly go over these properties and how they help with stem cell treatments:
- Large surface: Mass Ratio (large functional space)
Surface: Mass ratio is the relationship between the space something takes up and how heavy it would be. When this ratio has a high surface to mass, it means uses more of the space effectively and makes it:
This is one of the reasons why nanotechnology is being incorporated into newer stem cell treatments when technology becomes more efficient the cheaper it gets. This is would reduce the cost that adds on top of the hefty price that stem cell treatments already have, but that’s a conversation for another time 😉.
- Tissue Targeted Nanoparticles
Tissue targeted nanoparticles are programmed molecules that can locate and deploy in certain tissues. Nanomaterials make it a lot easier to engineer tissue targeted nanoparticles, this is a trait that would add tremendous value towards helping deliver stem cell treatments because this nanotech property helps the stem cells reach previously inaccessible areas of the body (e.x. the brain).
- Higher Loading Capacity
The question in mind, how you can load anything on something so small?
Well, stem cells are absorbed through nanoparticles, which validates the whole point of putting the stem cells inside a nanomaterial as a capsule for delivery. It’s pretty straightforward how this would valuable to treatments:
more stem cells → more reproduction → more regeneration → faster treatment :)
All these properties allow for nanoparticles to serve as an ideal delivery method for stem cell treatments within inaccessible parts of the brain. There are many obstacles in the way of bringing this technology to the market, like ethical (public misconceptions), cost, and efficiency issues, but that’s a conversation for another day 👀. Down to the list of what we’ve learned today 👇:
- Scoring is dependant on a good shot
The stem cell treatment is nothing without the nanoparticles carrying it through the Blood-Brain Barrier, and the more we develop a safe + efficient delivery method, the more we can get it to curing without having to worry about if the treatment is going to get there or not.
- SLN nanoparticles are the way to go
Lipids are a type of natural substance that can dissolve in and out of the Blood-Brain Barrier, and when the nanoparticles that consist of lipids they can easily get the stem cells inside the brain.
- Stem cells are crazy good at curing degeneration
I go in-depth with what stem cells are exactly here: https://bit.ly/32ci2DA, but a quick refresher doesn’t hurt. Stem cells are cells that can differentiate (mature) into other types of cells, and that with fast reproduction rates. Both of these traits help them create anything the site of injury needs. Stem cells more like Super Cells 💪.
Before I have to say goodbye, I want you to leave with an emotional connection to my article. I want to do that by telling you a story that truly inspired me and led me down this path:
I have one goal in life, I would consider personal success: impacting billions of lives in a positive and meaningful way.
Billions of people around the world have diseases that leave them with insecurities, lost hope, depression, physical debilitation, and much more. But today, I want to talk about one person and how his life was changed through a stem cell treatment:
Two best friends grew up to live with each other, with the hopes of having their children sharing the same bond growing up. There was Chloe born into one house, while the other house gave birth to Ryan and both became best friends with all the time both families spent together. Around the age of three, Ryan’s physical development was showing signs of late development in comparison to Chloe’s. There were plenty of indicators like jumping with the other kids, trouble getting up from the floor, he couldn’t run up the stairs with excitement or keep up with the other kids running off.
Soon after, it became very concerning and his parents took him for a check-up, and their friend doing a residency in orthopedics had explained his observations, his observations that gave young Ryan multiple indicators of muscular dystrophy.
*Muscular dystrophy is a hereditary disease that is marked by progressive weakening and wasting of the muscles.
When the diagnosis was confirmed, the family went into mourning when they realized Ryan would live up to his twenties at most.
Many many months later, after reaching out to plenty of research associations that gave them no hope for Ryan’s future, the father of Chloe was in Costa Rica working on stem cell treatments and started treatments on patients. There was a specific Irish patient that suffered from Duchenne (another degenerative disease), and when they initially started with stem cell injections to vital sites which needed treatment the most (e.x. the back, arms, legs). After a few months, the patient came back to the clinic walking on his own two feet, talking with a strong clear voice.
This gave them hope, hope that traditional medicine couldn’t give them, hope that stem cells would give Ryan a normal life.
They immediately started collecting donor stem cells to treat Ryan, and when eventually he gets injected in all vital areas, he could start sitting up on his own and resisted small amounts of force like gentle pushes. He’s recently celebrated his 30th birthday, the longest someone with Ryan’s type of disease has ever lived.
This story touched my heart, where I could give victims like Ryan a normal life, to give them the same opportunities that we take for granted, to help millions of families around the world. It’s crazy the number of resources I have open to me, that itself empowers me to do everything I can to help.
If you liked my article, then don’t forget to leave some claps :)
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out at my email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Linkedin (Valmik Rao).