Findings from the multi-year research project were recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.
The project came about when the University’s Dr Darren Day, an expert in a type of cells known as ‘mesenchymal stem cells’ from the School of Biological Sciences, was approached in 2013 by Dr Barnaby May, who was then scientific director of Mesynthes (the company has since changed its name to Aroa Biosurgery and Dr May is vice president research and clinical development). Aroa produces an advanced bioscaffold known as Aroa ECM®’ that is used to regenerate soft tissue. Aroa sought to collaborate with Dr Day to understand the interaction between their Aroa ECM® technology and mesenchymal stem cells.
The lead scientist on the project was Aroa employee Sandi Dempsey who joined the research effort as a PhD candidate under the supervision of Dr May and Dr Day.
“Our hypothesis was that as the Aroa ECM® technology was absorbed into the regenerating tissue, products from the bioscaffold were attracting mesenchymal stem cells to the site and speeding up healing,” Dr Day says.
Sandi Dempsey carried out several experiments to figure out how the Aroa ECM ® technology worked to attract stem cells. The ‘eureka’ moment came when the research team completed an experiment where they allowed white blood cells called ‘macrophages’ to interact with the Aroa ECM® technology—as would happen if the product was used in surgery. As a result of this experiment, they discovered a new protein that plays a significant role in how the Aroa ECM® technology functions.
Dr Dempsey named the protein they discovered ‘MayDay’, after Dr May and Dr Day’s surnames and after its proposed role in early signaling to attract stem cells.
“I laughed when I heard that,” Dr Day says. “It certainly makes for a fun story around the dinner table!”
“It is interesting cell biology,” Dr Day says. “When tissue is cut or damaged, macrophages move to the site and begin cleaning up the damaged tissue. If Aroa ECM® technology is applied, the macrophages interact with the bioscaffold, releasing the MayDay protein. The MayDay protein in turn attracts mesenchymal stem cells, which play a critical role during soft tissue repair.”
After Dr Dempsey completed her PhD, Aroa purchased the intellectual property with the help of Wellington UniVentures so she could continue work on the project.
“Dr Dempsey, Dr May, and I are all named on the patent for the protein we discovered, but it wasn’t about making money for me—I just got a kick from solving the mystery of how Aroa’s technology works, and contributing to our understanding of soft tissue regeneration,” Dr Day says.
Aroa has five commercial products approved for sale in the United States based on the Aroa ECM® technology, which have been used in more than four million procedures targeting chronic wounds, hernia, soft tissue and breast reconstruction. They will be undertaking further studies to fully understand the role of the MayDay protein in tissue regeneration.