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Priming embryonic stem cells to fulfill their promise

Bioengineering researchers at the University of California, San Diego have invented a process to help turn embryonic stem cells into the types of specialized cells being sought as possible treatments for dozens of human diseases and health conditions. Sangeeta Bhatia and Shu Chien, UCSD bioengineering professors, and Christopher J. Flaim, a bioengineering graduate student, described the cell-culture technique in a paper published in the February issue of Nature Methods, which became available online on Jan. 21.

Embryonic stem cells are considered the blank-slate, raw material needed to repair or replace damaged or missing liver, nerve, muscle, and other tissues and organs. However, in order to fulfill their therapeutic promise, scientists believe that stem cells must first be coaxed to differentiate, or mature, into precursors of specialized cell types found in the body. Embryonic stem cell differentiation is complex and far from fully understood. Scientists are focusing on four types of external inputs known to be involved in triggering the differentiation of stem cells: soluble growth factors, adjacent cells, mechanical forces, and extracellular matrix proteins that form the support structure of almost all tissues. Bhatia, Chien, and Flaim focused on just one - the extracellular matrix. "We kept the other factors constant and developed a miniaturized technique to precisely vary extracellular matrix proteins as a way to identify which combinations were optimal in producing differentiated cells from stem cells," said Bhatia. She, Chien, and Flaim described in their paper a technique that enabled them to identify the precise mix of proteins that optimally prompted mouse embryonic stem cells to begin the differentiation process into liver cells. Bhatia, Chien, and Flaim designed the technique with other cell biologists in mind so that any of them could duplicate it with off-the-shelf chemicals and standardized laboratory machinery. "We think other researchers c
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Source:Eurekalert


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