Work is Funded by Manufacturing USA Grant

Amy Peterson and student in lab
Prof. Amy Peterson is working to speed up production of mesenchymal stem/stromal cells. Here, she is shown in the lab with Ph.D. student Ivan Ding.

By Katharine Webster

Certain cells from adult bone marrow can act as a repair kit for the body. 

Grown outside the body and used therapeutically, these cells, known as mesenchymal stem/stromal cells (MSCs), can repair or replace diseased and damaged tissues, including bone, blood vessels, fat and cartilage. Already used in bone marrow transplants, they also hold enormous potential for treating degenerative disorders such as osteoarthritis and cardiovascular disease. 

But they are difficult and expensive to grow in the quantities necessary for effective therapy. A single dose can include up to 8 million cells, potentially requiring the production of hundreds of millions of cells per patient. 

Assoc. Prof. Amy Peterson, who joined the Plastics Engineering Department a year ago, is working to automate part of that process and make it much less expensive. Her research, conducted with partners in industry and some of her former colleagues at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, is funded by a two-year, $1.44 million grant through the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute/BioFabUSA, a Manufacturing USA Institute. 

The state of the art in MSC culture is to grow the cells on tiny plastic beads, known as microcarriers, suspended in a nutritional medium. A dose of growth factor is injected every couple of days to encourage the cells to proliferate. However, growth factor deteriorates quickly, so most of each dose is wasted, Peterson says. 

She and her colleagues are figuring out how to coat the microcarriers with a timed-release growth factor that will encourage the cells to attach to the beads and multiply. The process would be more economical than current methods, she says. 

“You can use less growth factor and have it be more effective,” she says. “We’re trying to formulate these coatings to be optimal for the bioreactor environment while encouraging the MSCs to proliferate and maintain their undifferentiated (non-specialized) state.” 

Peterson, whose background is in chemical engineering, is working on the coating formulation, while her colleagues at WPI are working on automating the coating process. Their partners in industry, who also contribute research expertise, include RoosterBio, which grows MSCs; Akron Biotech, which produces a range of recombinant growth factors; and Rockwell Automation, which automates highly specialized processes.