Since highly versatile human stem cells were discovered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison nearly 20 years ago, their path to the market and clinic has been slowed by a range of complications. Both embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells are valued for their ability to form any cell in the body. On July 11, 2017, a UW-Madison team reported in Nature Biomedical Engineering that it has surmounted a major hurdle on the path toward wider use of stem cells. The article is titled “Versatile Synthetic Alternatives to Matrigel for Vascular Toxicity Screening and Stem Cell Expansion.” Using an automated screening test that they devised, William Murphy, PhD, a Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and colleagues Eric Nguyen, PhD, and William Daly, PhD, have invented an all-chemical replacement for the confusing, even dangerous materials, now used to grow these delicate cells. "We set out to create a simple, completely synthetic material that would support stem cells without the issues of unintended effects and lack of reproducibility," Dr. Murphy says. Stem cells respond to chemical signals that trigger their development into specialized cells in the brain, muscles and blood vessels. In the lab, researchers use a "substrate" material that anchors the cells in place and allows the necessary signaling. Matrigel, currently the most popular of these substrates, is a complex stew derived from mouse tumors. "Matrigel can be a very powerful material, as it includes more than 1,500 different proteins," says Dr. Murphy, "and these can influence cell behavior in a huge variety of ways. Matrigel has been used as a Swiss army knife for growing cells and assembling tissues, but there are substantial issues with reproducibility because it's such a complex material." And given its biological origin, Matrigel can carry pathogens or other hazards.
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