Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Researchers create sticky scaffold for growing stem cells

Just like the bones provide structural support to the body, cells also have their own structure support (scaffold) that holds them in place. This scaffold is known as the extracellular matrix (ECM). Among many other important functions, it also provides adhesive spots where the cells can bind.

A new study published by researchers from the University of California, San Diego and the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom found that these attachment sites are randomly distributed. The findings are very important since all the currently used biomaterials for growing stem cells in vitro are "uniformly sticky" instead of having a more random stickiness distribution, like ECM does. The study was published by Adam Engler and Giuseppe Battaglia.

The researchers created a new foam-like biomaterial that mimics the random stickiness of the extracellular matrix. Their foam is made from two polymers separated from a solution. The one is sticky while the other isn't. The scientists explain:

"It's like what happens when you make balsamic vinaigrette and all the vinegar is randomly distributed in tiny bubbles throughout the oil. We shook these two polymers up sufficiently to form randomly distributed nano-scopic patches of the sticky material amid the non-sticky material."

Visual comparison of three foams with different randomness.
Immunofluorescent images of three foams with a different level of stickiness. The foam is green, stem cells are red and stem cell nuclei are blue. The foam in the middle is the one with just the right amount of randomness Photo Credit: Professor Adam Engler

After intense experimentation, they found the golden ratio for mixing the two polymers, and by using a lesser amount of the sticky polymer, they managed to create a foam featuring adhesive patches in a very similar way the natural ECM does.
As they expected, the foam that resembled ECM gave better results compared to the uniformly sticky foam. Battaglia said:

"In this sense, stem cells are like Goldilocks: the scaffold should not be too sticky or not sticky, it must be just right to maximise adhesion, and later, to cause stem cells to mature into tissue cells."

Picture of the foam with the right amount of stickiness that the scientists created for housing stem cells
Electron microscope image of the foam with the right amount of stickiness Photo Credit: Professor Adam Engler.

The researchers believe that their findings may one day help other scientists to create biomaterials that are better suited for housing and growing stem cells.  

Adam Engler is a bioengineering professor at UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.
Giuseppe Battaglia is a professor of synthetic biology at the University of Sheffield.

Viswanathan, P., Chirasatitsin, S., Ngamkham, K., Engler, A., & Battaglia, G. (2012). Cell Instructive Microporous Scaffolds through Interface Engineering Journal of the American Chemical Society, 134 (49), 20103-20109 DOI: 10.1021/ja308523f

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