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Advancing Next-Gen Cell Culture Tech

Researcher studies ways to improve the latest offerings to better mimic the human body  

by West Virginia University
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Stem cell coloniesStem cell colonies that are not yet differentiatedImage credit: Nissim Benvenisty, Wikimedia CommonsA researcher at West Virginia University is studying ways to advance the next generation of cell culture technologies—the removal of stem cells from an organism and the controlled growth of those cells in an engineering environment—that could treat debilitating diseases.

Stem cells have the ability to develop into many different cell types, which means there are potential opportunities for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, chronic pain and cancer. However, the realization of this potential remains limited by current challenges associated with differentiating stem cells’ selectively into specific cell types when cultured.

Stem cells respond to nanoscale features on the cell culture surface. In order to optimize cell culture conditions, Yong Yang, assistant professor of chemical engineering, is investigating the effect different nanoscale structures have on stem cells.

“Conventional cell culture methods using flat, stiff plastic surfaces do not accurately mimic the characteristics of the microenvironment where cells reside inside the human body,” said Yang, “which cause cell behaviors on such surfaces to deviate from their live counterparts. For instance, skeletal muscle stem cells lose their regenerative potential rapidly on stiff plastic surfaces, but retain their regenerative capacity on soft hydrogels of physiologically relevant stiffness.

“There is a pressing need, therefore, to incorporate the microenvironmental or surrounding characteristics into stem cell culture technologies,” Yang said.

Yang’s research uses stem cells derived from human bone marrow to test the hypothesis that stem cells can remember the nanoscale surface information from the previous culture environment and that information can influence the regenerative capacity of stem cells. His work is being supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

“The nanoscale features critically influence numerous developmental and disease processes, and have a profound influence on stem cell growth and differentiation in cell culture,” Yang said. “We will engineer a variety of nanotopographies and investigate how stem cells memorize the information from the shape and dimensions of surface features over a certain period of culture time, which eventually has an impact on the regenerative capacity of the stem cell.”

It’s like playing tennis on clay and then switching to hard courts, analogized Pradeep Fulay, associate dean of research in the Statler College.

“A player who trains on clay will find it difficult to switch to a hard court surface,” he said. “The footwork used on clay wouldn’t work on a hard court.”

According to Yang, the research has the potential to revolutionize cell culture technologies.

“This research will contribute to the development of next-generation stem cell culture technologies, and provide insight into the design of new biomaterials and the cell-substrate interfaces of implants and medical devices for regenerative medicine.”