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Bhatia Lab Helps Human Cells Find Balance

Paige Collins

Paige Collins | Tuesday, April 4, 2017

In a study published today in Cell Reports, the Bhatia lab describes how they uncovered a solution to a major roadblock in unlocking the potential of hPSCs.


We have written extensively about our commitment to working with human cells throughout the scientific process. We believe that working with human cells helps to ensure that all of our studies will be relevant to the people whose needs we are trying to meet: those living with diseases that have limited medical options.

While we regularly praise the utility of human cells, we rarely discuss the obstacles associated with them. Take human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs), for instance. These cells are essential to our biomedical research because they hold the potential to become any cell type in the body, including blood, neural and other cell types affected by disease in specific patients. The problem is that we are still learning how to instruct hPSCs to become one cell over another. This represents the major obstacle that prevents us from using hPSCs towards modelling human diseases and personalized medicine.

In a study published today in Cell Reports, the Bhatia lab describes how they uncovered a solution to a major roadblock in unlocking the potential of hPSCs. The team identified unique properties of hPSCs that hold them back from striking a necessary balance between stem cell growth (self-renewal) and becoming the specialized cell types needed for biomedical research (differentiation).

The team found that when these cells are in a state where they are able to grow or self-renew well, their ability to differentiate is hindered. This is problematic because in order for these cells to be useful for researchers, they need to be able to do both: grow well (so we have enough cells to study) and differentiate into the mature, tissue-specific cells that help us explore diseases and potential therapies.

“What we found is that self-renewal and differentiation in hPSCs is balanced on a fulcrum; where one is elevated, the other goes down and vice versa,” explained Dr. Bhatia.

The SCC-RI team found that one control of this imbalance could be targeted and corrected.

Given the SCC-RI’s previous experience in drug screening and discovery they focused their efforts on drug control of hPSCs. They were successful in identifying several compounds that effectively targeted this imbalance, allowing for robust growth of these cells while keeping them in a state where they could also differentiate.

Dr. Bhatia described it as achieving the “best of both worlds.”

These findings are significant because they provide us with new information about how hPSCs work and a way to exploit this information to create better disease models and personalized therapies.

“With this best case scenario in place, there are several new disease models we can now tackle that were just too difficult before,” said Dr. Bhatia.

This study was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Mick Bhatia

Mick Bhatia

Director and Senior Scientist