SYDNEY - Australian scientists have found a unique way to grow a precious and life-saving type of stem cell, likened to putting a "cat on a sofa", in the lab.
They have developed a super-thin and springy substance that mimics conditions inside the human body, and so can promote the growth of haemopoietic stem cells (HSCs) on a lab plate.
The cells, used to save the lives of people with leukaemia and in the treatment of a range of disorders over 40 years, must otherwise be harvested from bone marrow or the umbilical cords of newborns.
Professor John Rasko, of the Sydney-based Centenary Institute, said the new process could make "a very substantial difference" to the global availability of a "very precious and limited resource".
"What we have shown, and discovered for the first time in the world, is that these rare and precious red blood-forming stem cells can sense their physical environment," Prof Rasko told AAP.
"And just like a cat on a sofa bed trying to find a comfortable spot, they can actually sense the springiness or elasticity of the bed they find themselves on.
"By recreating that elastic bed for the stem cells, outside of the body, we can cause those cells to double or triple in number and grow them outside of the body."
Prof Rasko said the "molecular springy surface" was called tropoelastin and it was just 12 nanometres (0.0000012 of a centimetres) thick, though it had unique elastic properties.
The development could allow doctors and scientists to expand their use of HSCs without drawing more from the world's stocks of donated cord blood and bone marrow.
HSCs - the basic building blocks of the blood supply - are the only type of stem cell routinely used to treat human disease.
They are used in transplants to reconstitute a person's immune system after leukaemia, lymphoma, or various blood or auto-immune disorders have been treated with chemotherapy.
"By increasing the number of stem cells we can grow outside of the body we could effectively use less bone marrow, or cord blood, to get the same result or use the same amount to get a much better result," Prof Rasko said.
"About 3,500 people die of blood cancers each year in Australia alone and that number is going to increase dramatically as the population ages.
"This country does about 1,100 stem cell transplants a year and that's a large number of people who are benefiting from this kind of technology."
The research was a collaboration of the Centenary Institute, the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the University of Sydney, and the results are published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.