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Silly Putty the Key to Stem Cell Therapies?

Could a component of Silly Putty, the childhood classic from the 1950s that your grandkids probably play with today, help embryonic stem cells turn into working spinal cord cells? Yes, say researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann who published their study online at Nature Materials on April 13th 2014.

A release from the university reports that the team grew the cells on “a soft, utrafine carpet made of a key ingredient in Silly Putty”. The ingredient, called polydimethylsiloxane, is a type of silicone. This research is the first to directly link physical, as opposed to chemical, signals to human embryonic stem cell differentiation. Differentiation is the process of the source cells morphing into the body's more than 200 cell types that become muscle, bone, nerves and organs, for example.

Jianping Fu, U-M assistant professor of mechanical engineering, says the findings raise the possibility of a more efficient way to guide stem cells to differentiate and potentially provide therapies for diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), Huntington's or Alzheimer's.

In the specially engineered growth system—the “carpets” Fu and his colleagues designed—microscopic posts of the Silly Putty component serve as the threads. By varying the post height, the researchers can adjust the stiffness of the surface on which they grow cells. Shorter posts are more rigid ike an industrial carpet. Taller ones are softer and plusher.

The team found that stem cells they grew on the tall, softer micropost carpets turned into nerve cells much faster and more often than those they grew on the stiffer surfaces. After 23 days, the colonies of spinal cord cells—motor neurons that control how muscles move—that grew on the softer micropost carpets were four times more pure and 10 times larger than those growing on either traditional plates or rigid carpets.

The release quotes Fu as saying, "This is extremely exciting. To realize promising clinical applications of human embryonic stem cells, we need a better culture system that can reliably produce more target cells that function well. Our approach is a big step in that direction, by using synthetic microengineered surfaces to control mechanical environmental signals."

Fu is collaborating with doctors at the U-M Medical School. Eva Feldman, the Russell N. DeJong Professor of Neurology, studies amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. It paralyzes patients as it kills motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord.

Researchers like Feldman believe stem cell therapies—both from embryonic and adult varieties—might help patients grow new nerve cells. She's using Fu's technique to try to make fresh neurons from patients' own cells. At this point, they're examining how and whether the process could work, and they hope to try it in humans in the future.