University of Calgary

Storing stem cells

Jan. 22, 2009

Storing stem cells the cryopreservation way

Marian Hettiaratchi

Marian Hettiaratchi is investigating alternative, nontoxic protective compounds and examining how stem cells react. / Photo: Ken Bendiktsen

Stem cell research holds great promise for developing new cell-based therapies aimed at treating medical conditions. A crucial step in the development of such therapies is to find ways to effectively store these cells until it’s time to use them.

That’s where Marian Hettiaratchi comes in. She’s a third-year student at the Schulich School of Engineering, pursuing a chemical engineering degree with a biomedical specialization. Hettiaratchi is trying to improve the method of storing adult human stem cells, a process called cryopreservation.

Cryopreservation is a way to freeze stem cells at temperatures below -150oC, typically by immersing them in nitrogen vapour. But if the cells are to survive this process, they need to be frozen using a protective compound called a cryoprotectant.

“The most commonly used cryoprotectant has been found to be toxic to mammalian cells and can cause serious side effects when administered to human patients,” explains Hettiaratchi. “If stem cells are to eventually be used in clinical treatments, finding nontoxic alternatives to this compound is imperative.”

Hettiaratchi is investigating alternative, nontoxic protective compounds and examining how the cells react. Until now, very little research has been conducted in this area. Her work could identify new cryoprotectants that would ensure medical science has the large quantities of stem cells needed for the development of clinical applications aimed at treating diseases and injuries.

Hettiaratchi is doing her research as part of the Undergraduate Research Students Program, which provides an excellent opportunity for undergraduates to gain practical research experience with direct guidance from leading University of Calgary researchers.

Undergraduate students interested in finding out more about doing research at the university can find out more on the undergrad research opportunities website: