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Bioengineers provide adult stem cells with simultaneous chemical, electrical and mechanical cues

cells would also serve as excellent model systems for systematically studying cell function, signaling pathways, disease progression, and tissue growth and development.

Multifunctional Gel Matrix

The stem cells are embedded in a gelatin-like hydrogel bathed in an electrolyte solution compatible for cell growth. When an electric potential passes through the hydrogel, the gel bends and exerts mechanical strain on the cells that is designed to mimic the mechanical cues stem cells experience in natural microenvironments.

"Our hydrogel provides the chemical cues, and when you expose them to an electric field, the hydrogel surrounding the stem cells bends, which provides mechanical strain to the cells," said Varghese.

In the new paper, the bioengineers report results of human bone marrow derived mesenchymal stem cells growing in the new microenvironment. The chemical, electrical, and mechanical cues steered the embedded cells to differentiate into cartilage cells.

The researchers continue to improve their system, with the goal of coaxing healthy tissue from stem cells. "The ultimate goal of regenerative medicine is to make healthy tissues and differentiated cells with regenerating ability that can save lives. We are not there yet, but this work takes us one step closer," said Varghese, who is a faculty member of the UC San Diego Institute of Engineering in Medicine.

In addition, the work will be useful to researchers involved in basic stem cell research as well as stem-cell-based clinical trials. For example, in current clinical trials involving human stem cells, the cells are often conditioned in an artificial environment so that when they are implanted into humans, they are more apt to differentiate into the right kinds of cells. Additional control over the cues the cells receive during this conditioning phase could be critical to future regenerative therapy successes.

Crucial Undergraduate

Contact: Daniel Kane
University of California - San Diego

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