Stem cell research relies on some unusual reagents at times including a cell culture product called Matrigel.
One of the challenges with such reagents is that if they suddenly are back-ordered it could bring some research to a halt. Matrigel has been in short supply for the last year or so.
These products also tend to be expensive because they are unique and catalyze important research.
What is Matrigel and its composition?
Matrigel is a reagent that we add to our dishes of stem cells that helps mimic the conditions in their natural environment inside the body. It keeps stem cells happy and less stressed.
Certain other kinds of cells beyond stem cells also like it and it’s great for making organoids.
Corning, which sells it, describes Matrigel as:
“a solubilized basement membrane preparation extracted from the Engelbreth-Holm-Swarm (EHS) mouse sarcoma, a tumor rich in such ECM proteins as laminin (a major component), collagen IV, heparan sulfate proteoglycans, entactin/nidogen, and a number of growth factors.”
All these ingredients help to recreate a version of the stem cell niche inside a plastic dish in the lab, which is a big challenge. The stem cell niche is the home of stem cells in vivo.
Make your own Matrigel?
Could you make your own home-brew version of this pricey stem cell culturing product? Probably.
Over the years, I’ve heard of many labs making their own versions of expensive stuff like various growth factors, enzymes like PCR polymerases, and more. The reasons people might consider going to all that trouble are cost and the current shortage. Still, it’s a great reagent, and making Matrigel sounds like a major pain for an individual lab.
Why has there been a Matrigel shortage for the last year or so?
My initial guess was it was due to the pandemic, but it could just be that many more researchers are using it these days. For instance, organoid research has really caught on and many organoid protocols use matrigel or similar reagents.
Some researchers have given a lot of thought to synthetic alternatives to Matrigel too.
Alternatives to Matrigel: Cultrex and Geltrex
There are other products already available that have some similar ingredients and properties.
The one my lab has been exploring most recently is called Cultrex from R&D Systems. So far it seems to work fine for routine human iPS cell culture.
It seems less workable, though, for making organoids based on how much would be needed for embedding the organoids. Another similar or almost identical product is Geltrex from Gibco.
There’s a helpful discussion on Geltrex vs. Matrigel over on ResearchGate.
What do you use in your research if you rely on a product like this?
Overall, researchers have to pick the best reagent for particular experiments and it’s not always practical to switch midstream. If one were to make their own version of something similar to Matrigel, Cultrex, or Geltrex, you’d have to do your own QC on it too.