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Silly Putty and Stem cells? What a combo!

Cultured the stem cells on ultra-fine carpets made of microscopic posts. All from a key ingredient in Silly Putty. Credit: Ye Tao, Rose Anderson, Yubing Sun, and Jianping Fu.

Working with stem cells can be a little unruly, it’s sort of like asking a five year old what they want to be when they grow up– then making them stick to that plan. However, researchers have found a key piece of the puzzle needed to help coax stem cells into the adult cells they want and the key, silly putty.

Researchers, according to a study published online, at Nature Materials on April 13th found a way to more reliably take embryonic stem cells and turn them into spinal cord cells. The breakthrough, a utra-fine carpet made of a key ingredient in Silly Putty showed that the sponginess of the environment where the embryonic stem cells are placed effects what it will eventually become.

Jianping Fu, U-M assistant professor of mechanical engineering, says the new data offers a novel way to more efficiently grow stem cells into the desired end product, so no you won’t have liver cells in your kidney cells, at least that is the hope.

The growth plates that Fu used had ‘carpets’ of the silly putty component polydimethylsiloxane. Carpets being an apt comparison since they adjusted the height of the silly putty fibers to make it either softer ‘longer’ or harder ‘shorter’ just like you have high pile soft carpet and low hard carpets.

“To realize promising clinical applications of human embryonic stem cells, we need a better culture system that can reliably produce more  that function well. Our approach is a big step in that direction, by using synthetic micro engineered surfaces to control mechanical environmental signals,” Fu said. 

The cells Fu has grown show electrical behaviors comparable to those of neurons in the human body. They also found a signalling pathway [a fancy way of saying a route cells use to send special messages]  that regulates mechanically sensitive behaviors, more importantly the pathway also controls organ size and both causing and preventing tumor growth.

“Our work suggests that physical signals in the cell environment are important in neural patterning, a process where nerve cells become specialized for their specific functions based on their physical location in the body,” he said.

The bottom line, this research might be the missing link scientists were looking for in order to better control the powerful weapon against aging and disease that stem cells can become. Imagine never having to be put on a waiting list for a new organ — never having to take immunosuppressants because the transplant you got will be not only an exact match for you, it will be from you.

A world where the only limits put on health care are the ones we set, no longer limited to what we have on hand or the generous donations of organs from people who passed. It’s a bright future, one that will be exciting to see play out.

Exciting, no? You can read the full study — here!

One response

  1. Pingback: Coaxing Stem Cells: Where is that manual… | Loony Labs

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