Highlights in Chemical Biology

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Surface chemistry helps direct stem cell fate

30 April 2010

UK scientists have developed a method to control the behaviour and fate of stem cells using chemically-defined nanopatterned surfaces. This could aid development of tissues and organs for transplants.

Stem cell research offers limitless opportunities to develop new medical therapies, such as growing organs and tissues in the lab for transplantation into humans. The ability to reproducibly control cultures of stem cells is very important to avoid variation in clinical trials but the lack of consistency in the material on which the cells are grown has so far made this difficult. Also, current methods used to control stem cell behaviour, such as using biological growth factors, are very expensive. 

The team, led by John Hunt and Judith Curran at the University of Liverpool, use a technique known as dip pen nanolithography to precisely and homogenously pattern a planar gold surface with nanodots coated with simple functional groups, such as carboxyl, amino, methyl, and hydroxyl groups. Mesenchymal stem cells were then cultured on these surfaces to determine the effects of surface functionality and spatial arrangement of the nanodots on the behaviour of the stem cells. 

Dip pen nanolithography

Dip pen nanolithography precisely and homogenously patterns a planar gold surface with nanodots coated with simple functional groups

As well as reproducibly culturing a community of stem cells on the patterned materials, the team could also help control their behaviour by promoting development into other types of cells (such as bone or cartilage) or maintain them as stem cells. 'Stem cells are a very hot topic - we're using them at the moment to control not only stem cell differentiation but also maintenance of the stem cell phenotype,' comments Curran. 

Michael Whitaker, an expert in stem cells at Newcastle University, UK, puts things into perspective, 'the properties of surfaces with which stem cells interact can markedly alter their behaviour. These new findings illustrate how chemists with their knowledge of how to modify surfaces at the nanoscale can help biologists and clinicians control stem cell behaviours and fates.' 

The next step for the researchers is to investigate the possibility of introducing more complex functionalities such as biomolecules onto the surface to determine their effect on stem cell development. In the long term, this research could be used in regenerative medicine to provide billions of cells with the right functions needed to develop into human organs and tissues ready for transplantation. 

Andrew Kirk 


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Link to journal article

Introducing dip pen nanolithography as a tool for controlling stem cell behaviour: unlocking the potential of the next generation of smart materials in regenerative medicine
Judith M. Curran, Robert Stokes, Eleanore Irvine, Duncan Graham, N. A. Amro, R. G. Sanedrin, H. Jamil and John A. Hunt, Lab Chip, 2010, 10, 1662
DOI: 10.1039/c004149a

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