Adjustable Gels Used to Determine Those Molecules That Drive Stem Cell Differentiation

Scientists have been very interested in the details of stem cell differentiation. To that end, several laboratories have designed hydrogels that mimic the stiffness of biological tissue in order to grow stem cells and study their differentiation.

In one enterprising laboratory, led by Rein Ulijn of the City University of New York and the University of Strathclyde, scientists have used a novel culture-based gel system to study mesenchymal stem cell differentiation and identify those metabolites used by stem cells when they select bone and cartilage cell fates. When these molecules are provided to standard stem cell cultures, these molecules can guide stem cells to generate desired cell types. This new study illustrates how new biomaterials can provide an exacting model system that can help scientists precisely determine those identifying factors that drive stem cell differentiation.

Stem-cell scientists have known that the rigidity of a hydrogel surface can instruct stem cells to differentiate. A rigid surface, as it turns out, can result in bone cell formation, whereas soft surfaces induce the differentiation of cells into neuron-like cells. With this information, Ulijn and others developed a protocol that generates gels by combining small building-block molecules that spontaneously form a network of nanosized fibers. Furthermore, by varying the concentration of these building blocks, the stiffness of these gels can be adjusted. By mimicking the stiffness of bone (40 kilopascal) or cartilage (15 kilopascal), the gel stimulates stem cells applied to its surface to differentiate accordingly.

“This paper is a great example of how chemistry can help make step changes in biology,” said Matthew Dalby of the University of Glasgow and co-senior author. “As a biologist, I needed simple yet tunable cell-culture gels that would give me a defined system to study metabolites in the laboratory. Rein had developed the chemistry to allow this to happen.”

The available gels for growing stem cells are typically derived from animal products. Unfortunately, this can affect the reproducibility of results, since different preparations of particular animal products can have rather different properties. Synthetic components usually require coatings or coupling of cell-adhesive ligands. However, the gel developed by Ulijn’s group is composed of two simple synthetic peptide derivatives. One component binds to copies of itself with high directional preference, which results in the spontaneous formation of nanoscale fibers when the molecules are dissolved in water. The second components consists of a surfactant-like molecule that binds to the fiber surface and presents simple, cell-compatible chemical groups to any cells.


The components are held together by relatively weak and reversible interactions, e.g., hydrogen bonding and aromatic stacking. Interestingly, variants of these gels are commercially available through a spinoff company called Biogelx, Ltd., where Ulijn serves as chief scientific officer.

“We wanted a platform that provides nanofiber morphology and as-simple-as-possible chemistry and tunable stiffness to serve as a blank-slate background so that we could focus on changes in stem cell metabolism,” said Ulijn. “Matt and his team performed metabolomics analysis to find out how the key metabolites within a stem cell are used up during the differentiation process.”

Particular transcription factors are often the ingredients scientists use to induce stem cell fate in the case of induced pluripotent stem cells. However, Dalby and Ulijn think that certain metabolites might drive those pathways that cause the different intracellular concentrations of transcription factors that drive the various differentiation pathways.

One metabolite featured in the study is cholesterol sulfate. Cholesterol sulfate is used up during osteogenesis on a rigid matrix and can also be used to convert stem cells into bone-like cells in cell culture.

In their paper, Ulijn and his coworkers showed how small molecules, like cholesterol sulfate, can put into motion those cell-signaling pathways that culminate in the activation of the transcription factors that drive the transcription of major bone-related genes. The expression of these bone-specific genes drives bone formation, and this demonstrates a connection between the metabolites and the activation of transcription factors.

It must be noted that this gel does not precisely recapitulate the microenvironment inside the body. Therefore, it is unclear if the stem cells grown on it behave differently on the designed gel surfaces than they would in the body.

Although the full list of metabolites derived from the analysis is preliminary, “it could certainly point researchers in the right direction,” Ulijn said. “Our ambition is to simplify drug discovery by using the cell’s own metabolites as drug candidates,” Dalby said.

This paper was published here: Alakpa et al., “Tunable Supramolecular Hydrogels for Selection of Lineage Guiding Metabolites in Stem Cell Cultures,” Chem, 2016 DOI:10.1016/j.chempr.2016.07.001.


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).