The Future of Healing: Growing Spare Parts

By Shlomo Maital

Nabiha Saklayen  

   Nabiha Saklayen is CEO & co-founder of Cellino, which makes personalized stem cell-derived therapies.    She received her Ph.D. in Physics from Harvard University as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) International Fellow.  

    In her TED talk, featured on NPR’s TED podcast with Manoush Zomorodi, she explains how her startup (and others) may one day enable growth of spare parts for failed body organs, using “induced pluripotential stem cells”.

For example:  Take a person suffering from Parkinson’s.  Take a sample of their blood, transform their blood cells into stem cells, from there into neurons, and transplant the neuron (brain cells) to replace the offending brain cells that cause Parkinson’s!  

       Here is Nabiha’s explanation of the future of healing.

     “My grandma passed away due to diabetes. If the technology were available at the time,  we could have used her stem cells to generate new pancreatic cells (which produce insulin), and it could have cured her. Now, unfortunately, stem cells are notoriously difficult to engineer. One fundamental problem relates to how they’re made, which involves taking a patient’s blood cells, adding chemicals to those blood cells to turn them into stem cells.    Now, during this chemical process, you never end up with a perfect set of stem cells. In fact, you get a very messy plate of cells going in different directions — towards the eye, brain, liver — and every random cell must be removed.

          “Until recently, the main way to remove cells was by hand. I remember the first time I visited the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.   I watched a highly skilled scientist sitting at a bench looking at stem cells, evaluating them one at a time and removing the unwanted cells by hand. It’s a slow, tedious and artisanal process,  which is why generating a personalized stem cell bank today costs about one million dollars.

           “Now, using a donor’s stem cells is much cheaper.  I started using lasers to engineer human cells, and when I talked to biologists about it, they were amazed.   Here’s why.  Scientists are always looking for ways to make biology more precise. Sometimes cell culture can feel a lot like cooking,  take some chemicals, put it in a pot, stir it, heat it, see what happens,try it all over again.

           In contrast, lasers are so precise,  you can target one cell in millions at precise intervals —    every second, every minute, every hour — you name it. I realized that instead of doing this tedious process of stem cell culture by hand,  we could use lasers to remove the unwanted cells. And to automate the entire process,  we decided to use machine learning to identify those unwanted cells and zap them. Algorithms today are great at finding useful information and images, making this a perfect use case for machine learning.

      “Here’s how it works.  Take some blood cells, put it in a cassette.

Add chemicals to those blood cells to turn them into stem cells like always. Now, instead of having a human look for those unwanted cells and remove them by hand,  the machine identifies the unwanted cells and zaps them with a laser. As you can see, this entire process happens by machine.  The computer decides when and how often to print the cells and uses a fully automated system to run the process.   After repeated pruning,  you end up with a perfect culture of your stem cells, ready to be banked and used at any time.   In the future, we’re going to have stem cell farms with stacks and stacks of hundreds and then eventually millions of cassettes, each cassette a personalized bank for one human.

   Nurses will take a sample of your (umbilical) cord blood right at birth and ship it off for cultivation,    so that for the rest of your life, your stem cells are on file, banked,  ready to go, should any medical need arise.”

   This is not science fiction.  It will happen and perhaps sooner than we might imagine.  Nabiha, born in Saudi Arabia, has brought amazing creativity to the US, linking the physics of lasers with the biology of stem cells.  Kudos to brilliant immigrants!