Stem Cells: Development Depends On Grip

04/02/2013

Photo: Model of bone-like stem cell

Three-dimensional traction force microscopy shows where and how hard this bone-like cell is pulling on the surrounding gel; © University of Pennsylvania/Sudhir Khetan

Researchers have generated new insight on how a stem cell's environment influences its development: Whether human mesenchymal stem cells turn into fat or bone cells depends partially on how well they can "grip" the material they are growing in.

The research was conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Jason Burdick and his colleagues were interested in how three-dimensional matrices impact mechanotransduction, which is how the cell takes information about its physical environment and translates that to chemical signaling. "We're trying to understand how material signals can dictate stem cell response," he said. "Rather than considering the material as an inert structure, it is really guiding stem cell fate and differentiation — what kind of cells they will turn into."

The researchers cultured them in water-swollen polymer networks known as hydrogels, which share some similarities with the environments stem cells naturally grow in. These materials are generally soft and flexible but can vary in density and stiffness depending on the type and quantity of the bonds between the polymers. In this case, the researchers used covalently cross-linked gels, which contain irreversible chemical bonds. When seeded on top of two-dimensional covalently cross-linked gels, mesenchymal stem cells spread and pulled on the material differently depending on how stiff it was. Critically, the mechanics guide cell fate, or the type of cells they differentiate it into. A softer environment would produce more fat-like cells and a stiffer environment, where the cells can pull on the gel harder, would produce more bone-like cells.

However, when the researchers put mesenchymal stem cells inside three-dimensional hydrogels of varying stiffness, they did not see these kinds of changes. "In most covalently cross-linked gels, the cells canot spread into the matrix because they cannot degrade the bonds — they all become fat cells," Burdick said. "That tells us that in 3D covalent gels the cells do not translate the mechanical information the same way they do in a 2D system." To test this, the researchers changed the chemistry of their hydrogels so that the polymer chains were connected by a peptide that the cells could naturally degrade. They hypothesized that, as the cells spread, they would be able to get a better grip on their surrounding environment and thus be more likely to turn into bone-like cells.

In order to determine how well the cells were pulling on their environment, the researchers used a technique developed by Professor Christopher Chen's lab called 3D traction force microscopy. This technique involves seeding the gel with microscopic beads, then tracking their location before and after a cell is removed. "Because the gel is elastic and will relax back into its original position when you remove the cells," Chen said, "you can quantify how much the cells are pulling on the gel based on how much and which way it springs back after the cell is removed."

The results showed that the stem cells' differentiation into bone-like cells was aided by their ability to better anchor themselves into the growth environment.
"With our original experiment, we observed that the cells essentially did not pull on the gel. They adhered to it and were viable, but we did not see bead displacement. They couldn't get a grip," Burdick said. "When we put the cells into a gel where they could degrade the bonds, we saw them spread into the matrix and deform it, displacing the beads."

Burdick and his colleagues see these results as helping develop a better fundamental understanding of how to engineer tissues using stem cells.
"This is a model system for showing how the microenvironment can influence the fate of the cells," Burdick said.

MEDICA.de; Source: University of Pennsylvania