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Research that improves speed, accuracy of stem cell experiments

ARLINGTON, TX (US), November 2021 — Researchers are working to create a simulation technique that better predicts how stem cells develop into specific cells, such as bone or skin.

The team from the University of Texas at Arlington, led by mechanical engineering associate professor Alan Bowling, Ph.D., has developed a new way of simulating cell mechanics with a technique that mirrors the movement of a cell’s contents in a process that affects stem cell differentiation. Stem cell differentiation has applications in tissue repair, regeneration and wound healing.

The simulation helps predict the initial conditions of a stem cell that will successfully differentiate into a desired cell type. If a scientist can figure out the initial conditions, it will be possible to predict what the cell will become ahead of time. If cells are being developed for a skin graft, for example, scientists could increase a batch’s yield to 90 percent skin cells by starting with stem cells with characteristics that indicate that they will differentiate in that direction.

Michael Cho, Ph.D., professor and chair of the bioengineering department research, and Hyejin Moon, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineering, are co-principal investigators of the study. Dr. Cho’s research suggests that the key trigger for stem cell differentiation is based on mechanical signaling. He discovered that there is a correlation between the size of the cell’s nucleus and whether it will differentiate into the desired cell type.

“We can get fast results, which lead to high yields of the specific tissue, so there are farther reaching consequences if we are successful,” Dr. Bowling said. “This technique appears to predict behavior that classic, standard models don’t. It allows us to do simulations that we can’t with other techniques, and we can get results much more quickly than conventional techniques.”

The team has successfully shortened years-long computer simulations of 15-day differentiation processes down to about 90 minutes, Dr. Bowling said. Current stem cell experiments can take upwards of two weeks to complete and there is no way to tell what the results will be.

Dr. Moon’s experiments are meant to produce microfluidic conditions that mimic the intracellular environment, including differing viscosity and density of enzymes and proteins within the cells, to investigate what happens as stem cells differentiate.

Dr. Cho said the collaboration among the three scientists is leading to exciting developments.

“Determining why some stem cells respond as predicted and some don’t has been frustrating researchers in this field for years,” he said. “The accuracy of Dr. Bowling’s models will allow me to confidently predict mechanobiological behavior of cells under different environments in a fraction of the time, and Dr. Moon’s expertise will allow us to get into the finer details of what’s happening inside stem cells.”

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