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Stem Cells

Human embryonic stem cells have the potential to become any kind of cell in the human body. But the cells are difficult to culture, and researchers need the proper materials for growing the cells outside the body so they can be coaxed into becoming specific types of cells.

Human embryonic stem cells that are becoming epithelial cells, as indicated by the presence of a protein called cytokeratin (in green). The nuclei are stained blue.

Chemical engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge have now developed a way to rapidly test hundreds of biosynthetic materials simultaneously to find out which are best at prompting stem cells to differentiate into adult cells.

The researchers use robots to assemble more than 1,700 spots of biomaterial representing 500 different materials on a glass slide. The slide, or microarray, is then “seeded” with human embryonic stem cells. Staining the cells can reveal the effectiveness of the materials.

Detail from microarray containing hundreds of different materials for growing embryonic stem cells.

“The beauty of the technology is that we can make 20 slides at one time, each with over a thousand different spots, and then test them all with different growth factors and at different time intervals,” says Daniel G. Anderson, who led the research.

“Providing a tool that can quickly identify growth conditions may make it easier to grow cells outside the body,” Anderson adds.

Images courtesy Daniel G. Anderson.

— Cheryl Simon Silver

Lagner, R. Nanoliter-scale synthesis of arrayed biomaterials and application to human embryonic stem cells. Published online in Nature Biotechnology (June 13, 2004).

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