Through research projects on stem cell engineering for regenerative medicine, the MIT Portugal Program addresses the development of novel therapies for an aging society, and their clinical implementation.
About Our Research
Regenerative Medicine aims at improving the length and quality of life by restoring, maintaining, or enhancing tissue and organ function. A variety of novel approaches are used to address tissue/organ insufficiency, which include stem cell-based therapies for the regeneration of damaged tissues, and tissue-engineered implants and bio-hybrid organs to replace tissue function. Stem cells in particular have the ability to self-renew and to differentiate into cells that are found throughout the body. The possibility of using stem cells and their differentiated progenitors to treat numerous degenerative disorders has stimulated great interest in developing safe transplantable sources of stem cells able to repopulate damaged tissues. Advances in Regenerative Medicine have already contributed to the development of several sophisticated products, namely heart arteries, artificial blood and engineered bladders and ligaments. Stem cell-based therapies are in various stages of preclinical and clinical tests; however, the only approved and available products focus on simpler tissues, such as dermal and tissue-engineered cartilage and bone products. The limited scope of the products and stem cell-based therapies available is a result of the very early stage of development of this field, however it also constitutes a major opportunity for Portuguese research groups, hospitals and a new generation of Portuguese biotech companies.
The MIT-Portugal Program launched a research and advanced training network, the "Stem Cell Engineering & Clinical Research net - StemCellnet", bringing together the major hospitals in Portugal and the national scientific and technological institutions to fill this gap, in order to promote the development of new high value-added economic activities based on innovation in the health and biotechnology sectors. The ultimate goal is to foster the advancement of new knowledge and scientific research on human stem cells and tissue engineering, namely stem cell-based cellular therapies for the treatment of cancer and hematological disorders, autoimmune and other inflammatory diseases and genetic disorders, for clinical implementation in hospitals and for the establishment of a new generation of biotech companies.
The research in the cutting-edge area of Stem Cell Engineering for Regenerative Medicine within the MIT-Portugal Program addresses stem cell-based therapies and tissue engineering for treatment of hemato-oncologic diseases, cardiovascular diseases (the major cause of deaths in Portugal), neurodegenerative diseases (the number of cases in Portugal is estimated to double in the next 10 years), bone, skin and cartilage disorders, and urinary tract repair. Examples of current projects are: (i) "Mesenchymal Stem Cell-based Therapies to treat hemato-oncologic diseases at Portuguese Institute of Oncology, Lisbon" (collaboration: Instituto de Biotecnologia e Bioengenharia, Instituto Superior Técnico and Bone Marrow Transplant Unit, Instituto Português de Oncologia); (ii) "Regeneration of ischemic tissues by the transplantation of human stem cells and biomaterials" (collaboration: Centro de Neurociências e Biologia Celular, Universidade de Coimbra and Department of Cardiology, Hospitais Universitários de Coimbra"; and (iii) "Regeneration of bone and cartilage tissue using stem cells from adipose tissue and biomaterials" (collaboration: 3B's Research Group, Instituto de Biotecnologia e Bioengenharia and Department of Plastic Surgery, Hospital da Prelada, Porto).
To build a robust research portfolio, a cross-cutting research program in Stem Cell Engineering for Regenerative Medicine is being developed, aimed to: i) improve the basic understanding of the fundamental processes which control stem cell activity and their differentiation; ii) enhance technologies involved in isolation of stem cells from adult tissues, expansion of those cells in vitro, differentiation and transplantation protocols; iii) develop novel biomaterials and surfaces able to elicit specific reactions to cells, supporting cell growth and differentiation and organizing cells into tissues; and iv) design specific motifs at different length scales to improve functionality of tissue engineered constructs. As a result of research in the Regenerative Medicine field, Portugal can be projected as having a competitive role in some key technologies, such as novel bioprocesses for the maintenance and expansion of human stem cells, as well as their differentiated progeny; and micro/nanofabrication technologies to produce tissues-like substitutes. Other areas for potential competitive advantage include the development of products such as innovative scaffold biocompatible materials for 3-D cultivation of stem/progenitor cell, functional human tissue-like substitutes and controlled-release particles to program the differentiation of stem cells. Furthermore, the development of in vitro tests for cytotoxicity, cell differentiation, genomic stability of expanded cells and biocompatibility can profit from these scientific results, reducing the need of animal tests. All these technologies should be developed with the objective of being implemented under Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) conditions, in order to facilitate their translation to clinical trials.
The specific areas for research on Human Stem Cell systems (hematopoietic stem/progenitor, mesenchymal stem, embryonic stem, induced pluripotent stem and vascular progenitor cells) that could leverage the cross-cutting program in Stem Cell Engineering for Regenerative Medicine are:
- New large-scale bioreactors and processes for the maintenance and expansion of long-term transplantable human stem cells, as well as their differentiated progeny to mass-produce human cells ensuring their availability for cell-based therapies;
- High-Throughput Screening platforms for stem cell research and drug screening;
- Engineered innovative scaffold biocompatible materials, including a new generation of biomimetic biomaterials and nanobiomaterials, for 3-D stem/progenitor cell and functional human tissue-like substitutes, using microfabrication and nanofabrication technologies;
- Engineered and targeted controlled-release delivery systems for stem cells.