MERLN to start a stem cell growth plant

MERLN to start a stem cell growth plant

Two European grants for regenerative medicine

16-02-2022 · Background

The research institute MERLN has managed to obtain two European grants, intended to put the results of research into practice. What exactly is going to happen? Will the promises of the regenerative medicine gradually be honoured?

Just like the body itself heals a cut to the finger, regenerative medicine helps the body to repair more serious injuries itself. This is often done using stem cells, which can grow to be various types of cells. These cells are retrieved from the person’s body, cultured and then replaced, for example, to promote the growth of new bone tissue after a fracture. Or to create a joint in the lab, or to simulate an organ.

With one of the two ERC grants, professor Clemens van Blitterswijk is hoping to improve the cell culture. “We allow the stem cells to grow and clump together on culture plates, of 10 by 20 centimetres. These clumps of cells constitute the building blocks for new bone or muscular tissue. We will use the grant to create a new generation of those culture plates so that we can produce cells more efficiently and cheaper.”

This will take place in a trial plant in South Limburg, the location of which will be announced this month. It is a spin-off of MERLN, with a commercial production line on an experimental, somewhat smaller scale. Another three trial plants will go into production in Leiden, Utrecht and Eindhoven, making special cells or biomaterials. 

Just like MERLN, the research groups in those cities will come under the national institute Regmed XB, which Van Blitterswijk set up in 2017. The latter institute focuses on chronic disorders that afflict a large part of the population, including painful joints because of arthrosis, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.

Heart attack

The other grant, which Lorenzo Moroni received, relates to heart conditions. Moroni is MERLN’s new director as the former one, Pamela Habibovic, recently became rector of Maastricht University. 

The Italian professor will use the grant to elaborate on earlier research. In it, he focuses on the problem that stem cells, after they have been injected into the body, often don’t stay in their destination spot longer than a few days, after which they disappear into the bloodstream. 

“We now place those stem cells in a ‘shopping bag’, together with gel, and then implant them into the body. The cells remain in place for at least 28 days. “But that is not the only advantage. This concerns a smart bag that also ensures that the cells are not rejected by the body.”

Moroni is now going to apply the shopping bag to heart disorders, the restoration of scar tissue after a heart attack, to be exact. “The idea is that we implant the bag with stem cells into the heart, so that they can create new tissue where the scar tissue is situated. If everything goes well, this study will lead to a business plan with which we can collect money for a new company.”


The applications fell short of expectations for quite some time, says Van Blitterswijk, because MERLN had to be built from the ground up as an organisation. “In 2014, we came from Enschede to Maastricht with sixteen researchers, which has by now grown to nearly 150 employees. That kind of growth takes a lot of time and energy. At the same time, we received a lot of money for research, a total of about sixty million, is my estimation. In addition to the personal grants, we received a gravitation subsidy and money from the growth fund.”

Van Blitterswijk thinks that this is the moment when it becomes clear whether the promises of regenerative medicine will be kept. At some point this year, the discoveries from the lab will be clinically applied to patients.

“In Leiden, they make so-called islets of Langerhans from stem cells, which produce insulin. These are implanted inside a kind of tea bag that is made in Maastricht. A tremendous result on paper for people suffering from type 1 diabetes, the hereditary variant. But soon it will have to be proven whether the technology works, or whether patients benefit from it.”

Van Blitterswijk is quite hopeful. “But we are also careful. We have been optimistic in the past on various occasions and then the results were not what we hoped. Although we have now reached a point, I think, where the impact of regenerative medicine is going to be felt on a social level.”

Photo: Columbia University

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: stem cells, merln, regenerative medicine,moroni, van blitterswijk,instagram

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