ANN ARBOR, Mich.---Within 24 hours of culturing adult human stem cells on a new type of matrix, University of Michigan researchers were able to make predictions about how the cells would differentiate, or what type of tissue they would become. Their results are published in the Aug. 1 edition of Nature Methods.
Differentiation is the process of stem cells morphing into other types of cells. Understanding it is key to developing future stem cell-based regenerative therapies.
"We show, for the first time, that we can predict stem cell differentiation as early as Day 1," said Jianping Fu, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering who is the first author on the paper.
"Normally, it takes weeks or maybe longer to know how the stem cell will differentiate. Our work could speed up this lengthy process and could have important applications in drug screening and regenerative medicine. Our method could provide early indications of how the stem cells are differentiating and what the cell types they are becoming under a new drug treatment."
In this study, Fu and his colleagues examined stem cell mechanics, the slight forces the cells exert on the materials they are attached to. These traction forces were suspected to be involved in differentiation, but they have not been as widely studied as the chemical triggers. In this paper, the researchers show that the stiffness of the material on which stem cells are cultivated in a lab does, in fact, help to determine what type of cells they turn into.
"Our research confirms that mechanical factors are as important as the chemical factors regulating differentiation," Fu said. "The mechanical aspects have, until now, been largely ignored by stem cell biologists."
The researchers built a novel type of stem cell matrix, or scaffold, whose stiffness can be adjusted without altering its chemical composition, which cannot be done with conventional stem cell growth matrices, Fu said.
The new scaffold resembles an ultrafine carpet of "microposts," hair-like projections made of the elastic polymer polydimethylsiloxane---a key component in Silly Putty, Fu said. By adjusting the height of the microposts, the researchers were able to adjust the rigidity of the matrix.
In this experiment, the engineers used human mesenchymal stem cells, which are found in bone marrow and other connective tissues such as fat. The stem cells differentiated into bone when grown on stiffer scaffolds, and into fat when grown on more flexible scaffolds. …