Student project

Bioengineering stem cell niches in 2D and 3D

Muscle degenerative disorders, such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy, have a profound impact on the quality of life and survival of patients. Transplantation of myoblasts to restore muscle function has been discouraging since these cells die and don't migrate but it has more recently been reported that muscle stem cells, known as satellite cells, have an extraordinary potential to contribute to muscle fiber regeneration, home to their niche and replenish the stem cell pool when injected freshly into damaged muscle. These cells however quickly lose their regenerative potential when cultured in vitro. Adult stem cells are known to be regulated by their microenvironment through a complex mixture of signals including soluble factors, matrix bound proteins, neural input and mechanical properties and the identification of extrinsic factors that can regulate muscle stem cell quiescence and self-renewal has been a focus of research in the Blau lab. Strikingly, recent studies in the Blau lab have shown that muscle stem cells cultured on compliant hydrogels coated with laminin were more viable than those cultured on tissue culture plastic and robustly contributed to muscle regeneration when transplanted into irradiated mouse leg muscles. The aim of this project was to follow up on these findings and to further elucidate the role biophysical and biochemical microenvironmental cues play in the regulation of muscle stem cell fate. Hydrogels have emerged as a popular material to recreate the stem cell niche in vitro due to their biocompatibility, high water content, tissue-like elasticity and diffusive properties and were employed here to fabricate substrates of varying rigidities. The physicochemical properties and tethered protein densities of a range of poyl(ethylene glycol) hydrogels were first characterized to define a suitable set of cell culture substrates. Gel stiffness could be linearly modulated from 2.5 to 45 kPa and the ligand density was found to be in the low femtomolar range. ELISA showed similar protein density on gels of different stiffnesses but immunofluorescence could not fully confirm this. Committed myoblasts were then seeded on these gels and shown to respond to substrate stiffness and ligand density in terms of morphology. Lastly, freshly isolated muscle stem cells were cultured on these gels and on rigid tissue culture plastic and shown to spread more, be more viable and grow more rapidly on stiffer gels as compared to soft ones. Myogenic progression was retrospectively analysed using immunohistochemistry but no differences between culture conditions were observed. Based on the influences of gel rigidity and ligand density observed in vitro, an in vivo assay, the ultimate test of stem cell function, is currently underway.


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