Isolating stem cells with nanoparticles

Life Sciences

Stem cells are the future when it comes to regenerative medicine. However, highlighting and isolating them is no simple task. Researchers Madelon Maurice and Enrico Mastrobattista are developing nanoparticles to achieve this.

Madelon Maurice and Enrico Mastrobattista
Madelon Maurice and Enrico Mastrobattista

Today, stem cells have many applications. They can be used for repairing tissue, for example, or for screening medication. However, human stem cells are sensitive and hard to identify. If you want to isolate or multiply them, they tend to change, making them less useful.

Researchers Madelon Maurice and Enrico Mastrobattista want to tackle this problem. Maurice, an associate professor in the cell biology department at the UMC Utrecht, is looking at how stem cells decide to grow or specialise. Mastrobattista, an associate professor in the department of pharmaceutics of Utrecht University, encapsulates drugs or biomolecules in nanoparticles to guide them to a specific location in the body. Together, they hope to construct nanoparticles carrying a specialised protein - the name of which cannot yet be revealed - which will bind to stem cells. The nanoparticles protect this protein from harsh conditions within the body and ensure a higher level of active protein reaching the stem cells . “This way, we can highlight the stem cells, and even isolate them,” says Maurice. “This could work well in humans, for which such methods are yet hardly available.”


The isolated stem cells will then have to multiply. “If this works under the right conditions, we can expand them to screen medication. We could also produce mini-organs from them in order to test medication. This is how Hans Clevers’ group at the Hubrecht Institute produced mini-intestines. This now works with multiple other organs too.”

The new protein could also be useful for research into the role of stem cells in cancer formation. Mastrobattista says, “In principle, our protein can also bind to tumour stem cells. The protein effectively ‘betrays’ the location of these potential stem cells inside the tumour, allowing us to use highly targeted treatment. We can also fill these nanoparticles with drugs to reach high effective concentrations there where it is needed at the tumor stem cells”. 

The two feel very much at home in Utrecht. “I am pleased with how well people work together here,” says Maurice. “A large number of high-quality research groups are based in Utrecht Science Park, all within walking distance.” Mastrobattista says, “The infrastructure here is perfect, which gives you access to the right equipment. The Bijvoet Center, for example, has a powerful NMR facility that is very useful for us in this type of research.”

Extra boost

With the help of the seed money, the researchers hope to shortly be able to produce a proof of concept for further subsidy applications. “The seed money grant is very valuable to us. It has helped us set up this project, which is supported by a whole range of disciplines,” says Maurice. “This helps to create mutual commitment,” continues Mastrobattista. “The seed grant provides an ‘extra boost’ to get the research work off the ground. It might otherwise not have succeeded, as there is currently little scope for starting proof-of-concept projects.”

Jos van Putten, Life Sciences programme director at Utrecht University, comments, “The research work done by Maurice and Mastrobattista is ground-breaking, innovative, and important for regenerative medicine and cancer research alike. It has been made possible by experts from different disciplines working together. Investing in this project means investing in the future.”

Text: Roy Keeris