When most people think of cell regeneration and the medical treatments that technology makes possible, their minds usually go straight to regenerating skin cells from burns and other serious injuries. However, regenerative medicine goes far beyond skin grafts.
Regenerative medicine covers everything from stem cell therapy to cell reprogramming to gene editing. It shows promise for the treatment of diseases ranging from diabetes to Parkinson’s.
The University of Calgary has expertise in a wide variety of areas related to cell regeneration and not all of the faculties you would expect. The Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) under the direction of Dr. Jeff Biernaskie, Professor of Stem Biology and Regenerative Medicine, and the Chair of the Calgary Firefighter Burn Treatment Society for Skin Regeneration and Wound Healing have led research for years to better understand how regenerative therapies can be used to help heal serious injuries improve.
The Schulich School of Engineering (SSE) under the direction of Dr. Michael Kallos, professor in the Faculty of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering and director of the Calgary Biomedical Engineering Initiative, has developed technologies to safely and reproducibly grow stem cells – whether they are skin cells, nerve cells, or cells in another part of the body.
Co-researchers from these two faculties and the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) have been working in transdisciplinary teams on a variety of stem cell projects for humans and animals for many years.
Promising technology, but not without challenges
However, Kallos and his team always faced a challenge: “There are major gaps in translating discoveries in regenerative medicine from the laboratory to clinical applications that involve humans and other large animals,” he says. “It is difficult, without examining the possible therapy in a large animal model, to predict precisely whether therapies will be effective in treating human diseases and at the same time ensure safety.”
Growing cells can be a difficult thing – even when they are naturally produced. Sometimes our bodies still get it wrong and cancer cells grow instead of healthy ones. When researchers grow them in a laboratory, they have to be incredibly careful that the stem cells they produce are consistent and remain so with treatments – a huge challenge when you think about how many cells it may take.
Biernaskie uses skin grafts as an example. Technical skin grafts are sometimes required when a burn is not only severe but also large. He says a skin graft to treat a large burn could be made up of billions of skin cells. But if you grow these cells in the lab before putting them together into a skin construct, how do you make sure they kept their original function? How do you make sure that a subset of cells has not become abnormal? Because it only takes one bad cell to create a big problem for the body.
Kallos and his team have developed methods that use computerized bioreactors that allow them to grow stem cells in a controlled and regulated environment. It is an incredibly complex technology that provides a standard for producing stem cells in a sterile environment that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. But that doesn’t mean that there are still no challenges.
“Although small animals like mice are inexpensive and excellent models for genetic manipulation, mice do not always accurately model human physiology – for example, human skin sees and heals very differently than a mouse,” says Biernaskie. “As a result, treatments that show promise in mice are often of no benefit in humans or large animals. In contrast, treatments that work in a pig model of skin injury would be far better at predicting permanent benefits in humans. “
A new facility unique to Canada
All of this should change on March 3, 2021. Biernaskie, Kallos and their interdisciplinary team were awarded $ 1.8 million by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) for creating the Center for Cell Therapy Translation (C2T2).
The C2T2 will leverage UCVM’s unique expertise in large animal medicine and existing large animal surgery and housing infrastructure to enable rigorous evaluation of cell-based or pharmacological regenerative therapies in large animals that better represent human diseases. In essence, this provides researchers with a laboratory setting to test new treatments on animals that better represent humans before testing them in a clinical setting. These include treatments for osteoarthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and wound healing.
“This new system is incredibly unique,” explains Kallos. “Combining the Schulich School of Engineering’s knowledge of biomedical engineering with UCVM’s expertise in large animals and the Cumming School of Medicine expertise in stem cells creates an environment for research that cannot be done anywhere else in Canada . “
Better evidence for clinical trials
Biernaskie states that the C2T2, located in UCVM and SSE, will help develop systems that can scale promising technologies for clinical trials. But perhaps more importantly, they can quickly tell when things aren’t working. He explains that there is currently a major shortage of treatments that look promising on a laboratory scale but have not been able to fill the evidence gap needed to scale to clinical trials. Eliminating those who don’t make a promise will save you time and money for those who do.
Ultimately, the goal is for the C2T2 to provide the evidence needed to not only gain Health Canada and other regulatory approvals to advance clinical trials for promising treatments, but also the investment.
“Funding clinical trials for these types of treatments is incredibly expensive,” says Biernaskie.
Building on current research results
Biernaskie is excited about the promise the C2T2 holds to research into new treatments and therapies, but also looks forward to what it means to advance its current skin regeneration research supported by the Calgary Firefighters Burn Treatment Society.
“All of this work is incredibly collaborative and involves expertise from different disciplines,” he says. “The funding and support from Calgary Firefighters is a huge part of the success we have had, particularly in catalyzing a bridge between the laboratory and the clinical experts most familiar with patient needs.”
“We couldn’t be more proud of Dr. Biernaskie and Kallos, ”said Thomas Kerr, President of the Calgary Firefighters Burn Treatment Society. “We are glad that we only played a small role in their continued success and we wish them all the best for the future.”