Filling in the Gaps with the AggreWell

Mark Ungrin and AggreWell

Mark Ungrin and the AggreWell

Up close, the AggreWell, resembling a clear plastic coin holder with uniform holes, bringing to mind late-night infomercial gadgets, is unassuming. In fact, this deceptively simple-looking device—the invention of Mark Ungrin, an IBBME research associate with Professor Peter Zandstra and a fellow at the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine—aides researchers in the study of some of the smallest and most important building blocks of life: stem cells.

Involving the growth and study of “pluripotent” cells—cells that can be transformed into other types of cells in the body, stem cell research is on the cutting edge of science for its potentials towards new drug creation and tissue patching. It’s a growth field—but one in need of tools to create clusters of stem cells in uniform and stable groups.

Ungrin saw an opportunity.

“Where I think interesting work is to be done [is where] a technology doesn’t exist,” he says. “I like developing the technology that lets me access that space.” It was this entrepreneurial spirit that led Ungrin to develop the AggreWell before transferring it to STEMCELL Technologies in Vancouver.

AggreWell

AggreWell

The AggreWell starts with cells in a central reservoir and then separates and captures approximately equal numbers of them in tiny “micro-wells.” These micro-wells represent a controlled environment for creating uniform aggregates of cells, so important to enabling stem cell research.

“AggreWell adds standardization to human ES and iPS cell differentiation systems,” explains Jennifer Antonchuk, a research and development scientist with STEMCELL Technologies. “With the AggreWell, we are now able to consistently generate the same size and shape of embryoid bodies (EBs), thereby increasing reproducibility and consistency to EB-based protocols.”

The AggreWell is currently one of STEMCELL Technologies’ most popular products for research labs who use the cells “as a disease model to study a disease of interest, or […] the differentiation/development pathway,” states Antonchuk, with sales over half a million dollars since its 2009 release.

But the building of this miniscule device was a time-consuming and consistent labour of love. “If you want to go to a commercial product, it needs to work all the time,” Ungrin says of the AggreWell’s road to market. “To go from something that works to something that other people can make work consistently took about a year.”

Ungrin, who received his PhD at U of T’s Department of Medical Biophysics before taking a postdoctoral position in Professor Peter Zandstra’s lab in the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, accredits the “interdisciplinary nature of the building and people around me” at IBBME as one of the secrets to his success.

“I saw commonalities the way problems are addressed in engineering labs and things that work well in industry, and [I saw] the ability to develop new technologies to solve problems.”

Now Ungrin will put his love of problem solving to work at a new challenge: Ungrin has recently accepted an assistant professor position at the University of Calgary’s Department of Comparative Biology and Experimental Medicine in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, a position he chose for its emphasis and support of interdisciplinary research, spanning basic biology and technology development through to applications in animal and human health.

Learn more about IBBME’s Nanotechnology, Molecular Imaging and Systems Biology research theme.