Scientists Helping Scientists

STEMCELL Technologies

The team delivers over 1500 of these products to more than 70 countries around the globe to assist leading edge researchers in carrying out their work. “We provide the picks and shovels for the stem cell gold rush,” STEMCELL Technologies President and CEO Dr. Allen Eaves explains. “We are not actually looking for the gold – that is a new therapeutic process – but we are providing the tools that will help other people discover those new therapies.”

What are stem cells and why are they important?

Stem cells have the remarkable ability to develop into many different cell types during our early life and growth. They also act as an internal “repair system” for a number of tissues within our bodies – dividing almost without limit to continuously replenish other cells throughout the course of our lives. As these amazing cells divide, each one has the potential to remain a stem cell or to become another type of cell with a more specialized function (i.e. brain cell, muscle cell, red blood cell) through a process called differentiation.

Stem cells’ unique ability to differentiate means that they could play a hugely important role in future medical treatments. These cell based therapies, also known as regenerative medicine, have the potential to treat a wide range of diseases by inducing stem cells to differentiate into the specific cell type needed to repair damaged cells or tissues. “This is the new thing,” Dr. Eaves says of stem cells’ therapeutic possibilities. “The idea is that you won’t give drugs to people anymore, you will actually replace tissues or retool existing tissues and give them back to them. That is what we are all about.”

Not surprisingly, the remarkable potential of cell based therapy is garnering widespread attention around the globe. “There is a huge industry building up around the idea that these stem cells can do all sorts of good things,” Dr. Eaves says. But, in order to harness the power of stem cells to treat serious diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, researchers will need to learn more about the cells’ essential properties and what makes them different from specialized cell types. “The goal is to understand how to manage the regulation of growth and differentiation and apply it clinically to treat the patients.”

There is a catch, however. Stem cells are notoriously persnickety; they will only cooperate with researchers if they are grown in just the right environment. “There are a lot of things that we don’t know that cells like and need in order to grow,” Dr. Eaves explains. This is where STEMCELL Technologies comes in. The company develops cell culture media, which is the liquid that covers cells in a culture dish and contains nutrients and special growth factors to nourish and support the cells. “It’s a complicated mixture,” Dr. Eaves says of the substance. Indeed, creating a media able to successfully support stem cells is such a complex and misunderstood process that Dr. Eaves jokingly says that making it all work is “a sort of witchcraft.” In short, creating cell culture media isn’t for amateurs.

Scientists helping scientists

STEMCELL Technologies puts a tremendous amount of time, energy, and money into developing the most effective cell culture media and reagents, the special additives that help the cells flourish. “We have about 40 people doing research on different types of culture media to optimise growing the cells,” Dr. Eaves reports. He says that many researchers make their own reagents, but that this will often lead to less than ideal growing conditions. “They may not do it consistently each time, and they may not test what they’ve done to make sure that it meets certain standards. We provide standardized reagents that work consistently.”

The experts at STEMCELL Technologies rigorously pre-screen reagents and follow thorough quality control processes every time. This promise is backed up on paper. In 2008, STEMCELL Technologies achieved ISO 13485:2003 certification for its research, manufacturing and shipping facilities in Vancouver, Washington State, and Grenoble, France. This certification verifies that the company fully complies with all of the requirements for quality management systems for medical devices in the design, manufacturing and distribution of In Vitro Diagnostic products, Research Use Only products, reagents and laboratory equipment.

In addition to tight quality control, the team puts in the time and dedication needed to successfully develop cell culture media. Seeing the process through takes “a fair amount of love,” Dr. Eaves explains. “We are a little like gardeners. You have to have a green thumb of sorts to make sure that all of the things you are doing work well. And that requires a fair amount of training and understanding.”

Essentially, STEMCELL Technologies wants to take the burden surrounding media and reagents off of busy research teams. “We are all about helping our colleagues in academia and industry,” Dr. Eaves reports. “That is where the tagline ‘scientists helping scientists’ evolved from.”

And, the help doesn’t end when the product ships. The company doesn’t expect its customers to manage their cell culture media and reagents on their own. “We have about 15 people who do tech support on the phone all day long,” Dr. Eaves reports. “And that is another thing that I think sets us aside from our competitors. We are very customer focused. We make it easy to use these products and we help people to understand how to use them optimally.” These tech support employees are strategically spread across the globe, from France to Canada to Singapore, so that help is always available, day or night. STEMCELL Technologies also provides in depth educational programs and training courses in multiple locations worldwide to help customers understand how to use its products properly.

STEMCELL Technologies also aids fellow scientists by providing cell separation products. “You want to be able to manipulate these cells and separate out different populations of cells,” Dr. Eaves says of the research process. The team developed a special technique to separate cells using antibodies linked to magnetic particles. The magnetic particles will then stick onto cells that have specific molecules on their surface to which the antibodies bind. A magnet can then pull away all of the cells with magnetic particles stuck to them, leaving all of the cells that do not. The process is, of course, much more complicated than it sounds. Which is why, once again, the team works hard to provide much needed support to colleagues.

STEMCELL Technologies wants to be sure that all customers receive the support they need to perform their experiments better and faster. To be sure that this is accomplished, the team will work one on one with customers to customize media or cell separation products to meet their specific needs. In addition, STEMCELL’s Contract Assay Services team will work with clients to develop and carry out flexible custom-designed experiments to meet a unique need or goal. In fact, the team has conducted more than 500 studies and has assisted over 100 organizations worldwide with their specific research needs.

The company puts a tremendous amount of effort into hiring and maintaining a top notch staff to carry out all of these services and provide the highest quality products. In fact, one reason that the company is based in Vancouver is specifically to attract the best and brightest young minds. “Vancouver is a great place to raise a family,” Dr. Eaves explains. The city’s high livability helps ensure that employees will be willing to stay for the long haul. “The base of the company is knowledge. It’s all about the knowledge of my employees who know how to do all these things. So I don’t want to have turnover. I don’t want to have people coming and going. I want people to come and stay and be long time contributors.” Vancouver, he says, offers everything needed to keep an employee happy, from skiing and hiking to sailing.

Dr. Eaves and his dedicated staff – in Vancouver and around the world – are excited to be at the forefront of the ground breaking scientific advances they expect stem cell research will bring. “It is very early days,” he says. “But the dream is there. We are still limited in our understanding of [cell based therapies], but almost anything you can imagine is probably possible.”

June 21, 2018, 11:28 PM EDT

A Proactive Approach to Resolving a Longstanding Debate

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