Stem cells are highly promising for the treatment of everything from HIV to leukemia to baldness. In many cases, however, a great number of them must be used in order have a noticeable effect, which makes treatments impractical or expensive. Now, scientists at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital have found that a smaller number of stem cells can still get the job done, if they're first hopped up on steroids.

The research was conducted by Doctors Jeffrey Karp and James Ankrum, the former of whom has also helped bring us painless medical tape for newborns, worm-inspired skin grafts, porcupine quill-inspired surgical patches, and superglue for holes in the heart.

The scientists started with ordinary mesenchymal stem cells, and treated them with glucocorticoid steroids. This caused the cells to produce an increased amount of indoleamine-2,3-dioxygenase (IDO), which is an anti-inflammatory agent. Since it was noted that the cells' IDO expression was highest when they were actually being exposed to the steroids, the scientists added steroid-containing microparticles to the cells, so that they could have access to the drugs at all times.

When the 'roided-up stem cells were then introduced to inflamed immune cells, they were found to reduce inflammation twice as effectively as unmodified mesenchymal stem cells.

"Our approach enables fine tuning of cell potency and control following transplantation, which could lead to more successful cell-based therapies," said Ankrum.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.