American scientists have claimed to have found an “easy” way to culture human stem cells in a laboratory which could make it possible to repair damaged tissue.

In a solution to a decade-old problem of fragile human embryonic stem cells, scientists at The Scripps Research Institute discovered two novel synthetic small molecule drugs — Thiazovivin and Pyrintegrin — that each individually prevent the death of these cells.

“Scientists have been puzzled by why human embryonic stem cells die at a critical step in the culture process. In addition to posing a question in fundamental biology, this created a huge technical challenge in the lab,” said senior author Professor Sheng Ding.

The new study, published in journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), provides elegant solutions to both aspects of this problem.

It also unravels the mechanisms by which the compounds promote stem cell survival, shedding light on a previously unknown aspect of stem cell biology.

With this development the researchers hope that it will soon be possible to use stem cells, which possess the ability to develop into many other distinct cell types such as nerve, heart or lung cells to repair damaged tissue from any number of diseases from Type I diabetes to Parkinson’s.

The notorious fragility of human embryonic stem cells is the biggest hurdle in this field. In the process of growing stem cells in culture, scientists must split off cells from their cell colonies but these cells die unless the scientists take extraordinary care.

“The current techniques to keep these cells alive are tedious and labour-intensive,” Ding said, adding “keeping the cells alive is so difficult that some people are discouraged from entering the field. It is a very frustrating experience for everyone.”