April 2, 2010

U of C chemists help shape future of stem cell research

University chemists have determined that the shape of stem cells is important in their differentiation. Professor Milan Mrksich’s lab investigated the impact of the environment and the shape of the stem cells on their differentiation, a field that few stem cell researchers have studied.

Other researchers have focused on making stem cells differentiate using chemicals and proteins. “Most work with stem cells takes them out of their natural environment.

Part of the purpose of the experiment was to look at the effects that [a particular element] of the environment might have,” said Dr. Kristopher Killian, a member of Mrksich’s lab.

Mrksich’s lab used a patterning technique to change the shape of the cells. The shapes included long rectangles and squares, and shapes with rotational symmetry, like a pentagon, a flower with curved petals and a star shape.

The group “tried all of the Lucky Charms shapes,” Killian said.

The researchers discovered that increased tension in shapes like elongated rectangles and stars increases the likelihood the stem cell will become a bone cell. Squares and flower-shaped cells, which have less tension, develop into fat cells.

Understanding this type of platform is important for learning the rules that exist in the body for stem cell lineage commitment. It increases the number of available methods for impacting differentiation. This technique is easier than chemical methods because chemicals must be injected multiple times, while the geometric-patterned surfaces only have to be used once.

The lab’s research is adding “another tool to the toolbox,” as Killian put it, that may eventually lead to practical applications in regenerative medicine.