MADISON Ever since scientists first began growing human cells in lab dishes in 1952, they have focused on improving the chemical soup that feeds the cells and helps regulate their growth. But surfaces also matter, says Laura Kiessling, a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who observes that living cells are normally in contact with each other and with a structure called the extracellular matrix, not just with the dissolved chemicals in their surroundings.
"Soluble factors are important, but cells normally interact with the extracellular matrix and with neighboring cells, and these have not been considered in most efforts to refine growth conditions," says Kiessling. "We wanted to know, can we replace the neighboring cells and extracellular matrix with synthetics?"
Creating a more precise system for growing cells offers both theoretical and practical advantages, Kiessling says. First, it would reduce uncertainty in experiments by simplifying conditions. Second, it would remove the risk of biological contamination like viruses, so the cultured cells could be used in medicine. Third, new surfaces that improve the control over cell growth and development could facilitate the formation of artificial tissues, which are complex assemblies of different cell types.
In a talk on Aug. 28 to the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Denver, Kiessling outlined two areas of progress from her lab at UW-Madison. One series of experiments used a lab dish decorated with molecules called peptides to amplify the response of cells to a growth factor called transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta). TGF-beta can affect healing, cell division and transformation into a more specialized cell or into a tumor cell, Kiessling notes, so TGF-beta can be helpful or harmful in different situations.
After screening thousands of potential anchors, Kiessling, graduate student Joe Klim, former graduate student Lingyin L
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University of Wisconsin-Madison