SINGAPORE - Scientists at the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) have found a way to treat stem cells that produces purer batches of specialised cells than ever before.
Using their method, more than 90 per cent of the specialised cells produced are the ones scientists want.
Typically, conventional methods of treating stem cells yield an assorted mass of cells.
Only 40 per cent to 60 per cent of these are the sought-after endoderm cells, said Dr Bing Lim, associate director of cancer stem cell biology at GIS.
These have the potential to further develop into organs like the liver, pancreas and thyroid.
"When you try and differentiate the cells, you get mixed types of cells," said Dr Lim. "You might get the liver cells you want, but you might also get some heart cells or intestinal cells."
His team used a combination of proteins and chemicals to encourage the stem cells to grow into the specific cells they want. This method also stops the cells from developing into unwanted cells.
Their findings were published in international journal Cell Stem Cell earlier this month.
Dr Lim said the new method of accurately producing specialised endoderm cells would be useful in drug testing, to screen for possible side effects.
"One of the most important things for drug companies is to make sure drugs don't have toxic effects," he said.
"Using this, we have the means of developing lots and lots of cells for them to test on."
Dr Lim said liver cells could potentially be cultivated for drug testing in about two years.
Another implication of the new method would be to treat patients with liver diseases such as acute hepatitis, although this would be "more challenging".
"There are a lot of liver diseases, with people waiting for liver transplants," Dr Lim said. "This could be used for regenerating their damaged liver."
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.