High-throughput screening, in which many cell culture conditions can be tested using a combination of robotics, control software, and/or highly sensitive detection, allows researchers to explore new ideas quickly; thousands of combinations can be efficiently tested for toxicity, cell viability, proliferation or differentiation.
Recently, high throughput screening was used to search a library of over a thousand small molecule compounds, to find promoters and inhibitors of mesenchymal osteogenic differentiation. This differentiation process is of great interest to regenerative medicine researchers, as osteogenic (bone material) cells could be transplanted into patients suffering from osteoporosis, or other degenerative musculoskeletal diseases. This approach could be used for any stem cell type and differentiation lineage; where a differentiation characteristic is identified and tested, and statistics are used to compare each test with a positive and negative control. Once the field is narrowed down to those which show the most promising results, larger scale experiments can further quantify the cellular response and point to avenues of further study or clinical trial.
High throughput screening is also commonly used to test new drugs or therapies. Compounds which target the cells responsible for neuroblastoma tumours were identified with a small molecule screen, which led to therapeutic candidates to focus further research on and a Phase 1 clinical trial. Similarly, high throughput screens could be used to test drug toxicity much earlier than the status quo for clinical trials, or possibly even develop a scheme for personalized drug testing, using induced pluripotent stem cells derived from a patient’s own cells.
As bioengineering advances and new high throughput screening procedures are developed, the process may become more automated. This allows for even more conditions to be tested, and the future of stem cell research, whether it is the development of drugs and therapies, or stem cell differentiation protocols, remains promising.