October 7, 2004 – Japanese pharmaceutical maker Dai
Nippon Seiyaku announced the release of a new serum and feeder-free
embryonic stem (ES) cell culture system based on technologies developed
and patented by the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB)
Laboratory for Pluripotent Cell Studies (Hitoshi Niwa, Team
The ability to sustain and grow cells outside of a living body,
through a technique called cell culture, was an important stride
forward in twentieth century biology, enabling scientists to study
and manipulate the cellular activity and properties of colonies
of cells maintained in vitro. Cell culture has been of particular
importance to the understanding of stem cell biology, as research
into culturing showed that lines of these “master” cells,
unlike differentiated cell lines, can be maintained indefinitely.
This in vitro immortality, known as “self-renewal” is
in fact a hallmark of stem cells and one of their principal attractions
as potential sources of cells for use in regenerative medical therapy.
A number of types of culture media have been formulated to provide
the necessary nutrients and environmental conditions to the cells
being maintained. Embryonic stem cell culture has traditionally
made use of serum from the blood of fetal cows as a source of nutrients
along with a bed of fibroblast cells taken from mouse embryos, which
provides the environment required to maintain the ES cells in an
undifferentiated state. Although this combination of conditions
makes it possible to grow and maintain ES cells, the means by which
they achieve this remains incompletely understood at the molecular
level. The use of bovine serum and feeder cells from embryonic mice
is of particular concern when the potential clinical applications
of ES cells are considered, as the risk of contamination by animal-borne
viruses or other infectious agents rules out the use in human patients
of cells bred using feeder cells or media from non-human sources.
Rising to this challenge, the Niwa team developed a serum- and
feeder-free system that makes it possible for researchers to culture
ES cells under fully characterized experimental conditions. This
technology was then commercialized in collaboration with the Japanese
unit of the international research venture, Stem Cell Sciences K.
K., located in the Kobe Biomedical Industry Project research park.
Dai Nippon acquired the license to the technology and began marketing
it for use in mouse ES culture under the name Culticell in July
2004. The availability of a medium that is free of uncharacterized
ingredients and independent of feeder cells marks an important step
towards the realization of the promise of ES cells in clinical medicine,
while the development of a commercial product based on work by a
CDB laboratory highlights the potential of the translational research
paradigm bridging basic and applied science.