Stem cells, particularly haematopoietic stem cells, have been used in regenerative medicine for blood diseases since the 1950’s. However, it was the discovery of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) in 1998, which really catalysed the interest in, and promise of, regenerative medicine therapies to treat many incurable human conditions.
The potential for these pluripotent cells to be differentiated into any cell in the human body captivated the academic and medical fields. Yet, for some, the origin of hESCs, being the human embryo, posed a considerable ethical issue, which restricted the development and use of potential therapies from these cells from being more wildly explored.
Then, in 2007, came the discovery that human somatic cells (such as skin and blood cells) could be reprogrammed, to so-called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). This has once again renewed the focus of stem cell-derived therapies for regenerative medicine, with significant investment in this area over the last 10 years.
Within the last five years, clinical application (in the form of clinical trials) of human pluripotent stem cell (hPSC) – derived cell therapies have been steadily increasing, with now close to 30 worldwide trials in progress and some evidence of life-changing improvements for some participants. However, developing hPSC-derived cellular therapies is a long and complex process and requires a large and multidisciplinary team of experts.
The complexity of this challenge however, has opened many avenues to those students wishing to develop their careers within the field of stem cells and regenerative medicine.
Developers of cellular therapies, whether from academia, clinical or industrial origins, require experts with extensive knowledge of basic hPSC biology, human development, disease pathology and modelling.
In addition, knowledge of healthy and damaged cellular environments, immunology, toxicology and bio-distribution are also essential when developing these therapies.
Furthermore, knowledge of delivery systems, materials and tissue engineering are also key ones but are dependent on the intended application.
Finally and significantly, there is considerable need for expertise adapting smallscale laboratory experiments, to mass-manufacture in controlled environments. This includes experience of regulatory affairs, ethics, quality management, risk management, procedure and policy writing, equipment and facility validation and maintenance.
Therefore, any undergraduate degree programme has the potential to open a door into this field. A Master’s programme in stem cell and regenerative medicine, should aim to bring together people from diverse subject areas and provide an overview to the processes involved with clinical translation. It is likely that the focus of these Master’s programmes will be dependent on the core expertise within the university offering them and this should be considered when applying.
Within the field of stem cells and regenerative medicine it is essential that collaborative working skills are fostered, since it is unlikely that anyone university or institution will possess the relevant expertise to develop a hPSC-derived cellular therapy, single handily from bench to the clinic!
Practical skills: Employers in this area are keen to see real hands-on practical skills in human PSC culture, together with a range of relevant transferrable laboratory skills that can be obtained through a general laboratory-based research project.
Critical analysis skills: It is essential that students are able to read and understand scientific literature relating to their own research area and to understand how to integrate their own work into the wider scientific field.
Knowledge of the legal landscape: When working within a translatable science, it is essential that students have an understanding of both the legal and ethical frameworks in which their research sites and a good understanding of the impact and public opinions which relate to their research.
Graduates with a Master’s in stem cells and regenerative medicine are in demand and the skills obtained will prepare you for a career in academia, industry or in a clinically related field of research. The writer is UK regenerative medicine platform project manager, centre for stem cell biology, department of biomedical sciences, University of Sheffield, UK.