The Measurers Size Up Stem Cells

Kilogram standard

By Jeanne Loring

Last week I visited NIST, the National Institute for Standards and Technologies in Gaithersburg, Maryland as a member of a review panel. NIST is the science branch of the US Department of Commerce, which is the business part of the government, and is not officially associated with other acronyms, the NIH, NSF, DOD, DOE, or the FDA.

I discovered something exciting that is a secret to most biologists.NIST clock

It wasn’t the atomic clock, which is the official time standard, or the U.S. National Prototype Kilogram.

As the nations “standards bearers”, NIST calibrates things, from high-energy electron beams to laboratory thermometers, and is the place to buy from its catalog of 1,194 standard reference materials (SRMs), from standards to measure blood cholesterol and Portland Cement to a Calibration Standard for High Resolution X Ray Diffraction.

The NIST labs reminded me of one of my favorite places, a hardware store, where I’m fascinated with all of the small objects in the bins and wonder what they are used for. NIST’s bins are no secret to chemists, physicists, and engineers, but there hasn’t been much for biologists.Kilogram standard

But biologists have a bin or two at NIST, and may soon even have some containing things specifically for the stem cell community!

Some of the projects I learned about are a protein delivery system that has clinical applications, development of advanced microscopic imaging technology, forensic-type standards for cell line identification, and quality control standards for cell culture three-dimensional matrices.

NIST has clout. When the FDA or other government agency needs help with solid scientific information, they turn to NIST. Last fall, the FDA used DNA standards provided by NIST for the first approval of a DNA sequencing instrument for clinical diagnostic tests- Illumina’s MiSeq instrument.

The great news for us is that NIST has decided to help stem cell researchers by developing standards that we can all use as benchmarks for our research and clinical applications. But they won’t make a big deal of it; NIST does their work quietly, choosing projects not on the basis of headline-grabbing potential, but on the potential to improve the quality of our science. Stem cell science needs NIST.

What do you think needs to be standardized in our field?


  1. Hi Paul:

    Thanks for posting my thoughts on NIST. The question I asked is serious- what standards do stem cell researchers need?
    Quality control of growth factors?
    Epigenetic profiles?
    Standard samples of undifferentiated and differentiated cells?
    Definition of a “safe” cell line?

  2. potency example by cell surface markers such as CD10/CD24/ STO-1 for MSC cells

    …….Embryonic are at 18 and 24 % and adult are 1-2 % by flow analyses….. cut off should be 7-8 percent for injection of any stem cell for cell therapy

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