Get Regular Updates!




Stem cell serendipity

Stem cell serendipity

A chance discovery in the lab could be a game-changer for medicine.

Stem cell serendipity

“It was terrific,” is how University of New South Wales Associate Professor Kristopher Kilian describes the moment his research team realised what they were seeing.

“This is why science is so fun. When you make a discovery like this – there's nothing like it.”

Kris’s research group had done something no one had done before.

They’d prompted human stem cells to undergo a process called gastrulation.

It’s a pivotal stage of embryo development when stem cells start to transform into different tissues, ultimately leading to all the different parts in a human body.

And – for the first time – they’d done it simply by placing the cells in a special material.

Associate Professor Kristopher Kilian with his research team | Yi Pei


Like many great scientific breakthroughs, it was unintentional.

The team had planned to trigger gastrulation by adding chemicals that start differentiation – something researchers do all over the world.

“It doesn’t mimic what happens in a living embryo, because it’s sort of like taking a large sledgehammer to put in a carpet tack,” says Kris.

“It’s a little over the top, and you lose some of the nuance … that might happen in a human embryo that’s developing in a pregnant mother.”

how did they do it?

The researchers first placed the stem cells in a new biomaterial they were studying.

But when PhD student Pallavi Srivastava checked on the cells 2 days later, gastrulation had already started.

The team repeated the experiment, with the same results.

“In every lab in the world, they just remain [as stem cells], but when we put them on our materials, they started differentiating,” says Kris.

“I was stunned.”

It appears gastrulation was triggered by the combination of a soft material (similar to the human uterus) and confining the cells to restrict their movement.

View Larger
Stem cells confined in a circular shape on a soft gel display characteristics of embryonic development.

“It was the first report of how the physical aspects of this microenvironment – confinement and stiffness – could make gastrulation just happen,” he says.

“That’s pretty exciting.”


In 2012, two scientists won a Nobel Prize for the discovery that mature, specialised cells such as skin cells can be ‘reprogrammed’ to become immature stem cells.

Kris says being able to trigger gastrulation in these stem cells quickly and inexpensively could be “game changing” for medicine.

“For instance, in cancer research, if you could take a chunk of somebody’s tumour after a biopsy and then also take their skin or blood cells, reprogram them and form little mini livers or little mini hearts, then you could have a ‘body-on-a-chip’,” says Kris.

“You could develop drugs that kills the cancer but are also not toxic to the liver, not toxic to the heart.”


Kris stresses that, while we can initiate gastrulation, the cells need more signals to continue.

The technology certainly can’t be used for cloning or to create a new person.

But Kris is interested in whether other materials or chemicals can trigger cells to start forming more-complex tissues.

In the meantime, he’ll keep telling his students to “expect the unexpected”.

“We can be as clever as we want, and we can come up with all these hypotheses and ideas, but oftentimes it’s the surprises that really make huge impacts,” says Kris.

Particle Puns


Creative Commons Logo

Republishing our content

We want our stories to be shared and seen by as many people as possible.

Therefore, unless it says otherwise, copyright on the stories on Particle belongs to Scitech and they are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

This allows you to republish our articles online or in print for free. You just need to credit us and link to us, and you can’t edit our material or sell it separately.

Using the ‘republish’ button on our website is the easiest way to meet our guidelines.


You cannot edit the article.

When republishing, you have to credit our authors, ideally in the byline. You have to credit Particle with a link back to the original publication on Particle.

If you’re republishing online, you must use our pageview counter, link to us and include links from our story. Our page view counter is a small pixel-ping (invisible to the eye) that allows us to know when our content is republished. It’s a condition of our guidelines that you include our counter. If you use the ‘republish’ then you’ll capture our page counter.

If you’re republishing in print, please email us to let us so we know about it (we get very proud to see our work republished) and you must include the Particle logo next to the credits. Download logo here.

If you wish to republish all our stories, please contact us directly to discuss this opportunity.


Most of the images used on Particle are copyright of the photographer who made them.

It is your responsibility to confirm that you’re licensed to republish images in our articles.


All Particle videos can be accessed through YouTube under the Standard YouTube Licence.

The Standard YouTube licence

  1. This licence is ‘All Rights Reserved’, granting provisions for YouTube to display the content, and YouTube’s visitors to stream the content. This means that the content may be streamed from YouTube but specifically forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution, except where otherwise licensed. When uploading your content to YouTube it will automatically use the Standard YouTube licence. You can check this by clicking on Advanced Settings and looking at the dropdown box ‘License and rights ownership’.
  2. When a user is uploading a video he has license options that he can choose from. The first option is “standard YouTube License” which means that you grant the broadcasting rights to YouTube. This essentially means that your video can only be accessed from YouTube for watching purpose and cannot be reproduced or distributed in any other form without your consent.


For more information about using our content, email us:

Copy this HTML into your CMS
Press Ctrl+C to copy

We've got chemistry. Want something physical?