Shyni Varghese and Han Lim  (Source:
The first artificial environment to provide all three cues simultaneously

University of California - San Diego bioengineers have developed an artificial environment capable of providing stem cell differentiation and growth by simultaneously offering chemical, mechanical and electrical cues. 

The study was led by Shyni Varghese, a bioengineering professor at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, and her team of undergraduate bioengineering students. Varghese gives a large portion of the credit to one particular undergraduate bioengineering student, Han Lim. The team created the artificial environment in an effort to supply stem cells with all three cues simultaneously, ultimately helping to nurture stem cells better than before. 

Creating artificial environments for stem cells is nothing new. In the past, researchers have made these environments as a way to provide chemical cues joined with either electrical or mechanical cues, but never before has any researcher made an artificial environment supplying stem cells with all three cues at once. 

To make this artificial environment, UC San Diego researchers put the stem cells into a gelatin-like hydrogel, which is soaked in an electrolyte solution that is helpful for cell growth. The gel, which provides the chemical cues, bends when an electric potential passes through the hydrogel, and then pushes mechanical strain on the cells. These actions imitate the mechanical cues that stem cells experience within their natural environments. 

"We mimicked all these cues that the native environment provides to the cells," said Varghese. "This work is therefore fundamental to creating more lifelike environments for stem cells in order to steer stem cells toward specific cell types such as chondrocytes, osteoblasts, myoblasts or cardiomyocytes."

The study noted that human bone marrow derived mesenchymal stem cells grew within their artificial environment. With all three cues given simultaneously, the embedded stem cells were able to differentiate into cartilage cells. 

Researchers hope to use this artificial environment to coax healthy tissue from stem cells and to broaden basic stem cell research as well as stem cell-based clinical trials. Varghese and her team believe that building better artificial environments will lead to improvements in stem cell-based regenerative medicine, such as cartilage for joint repair, healthy skeletal myoblasts for muscular dystrophy patients and cardiac cells for damaged hearts. 

"The ultimate goal of regenerative medicine is to make healthy tissues and differentiated cells with regenerating ability that can save lives," said Varghese. "We are not there yet, but this work takes us one step closer."

This study was published in Advanced Functional Materials on November 13.

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