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Credit: Son Nguyen

Using novel imaging techniques, Penn researchers found stem cells can control their transformation into other types of cells, Penn Today reported

Stem cells transform into other cells in the body through a process called fate determination, which was previously thought to be mostly outside the cells' control. A group of Penn researchers studied how these stem cells interact with their environment using hydrogels, or engineered materials, which mimicked the composition of body tissues. The study was led by Bioengineering professor Jason Burdick and postdoctoral researcher Claudia Loebel, with assistance from Orthopaedic Surgery professor Robert Mauck.

Using a new imaging technique, the researchers found that once cells were placed in the hydrogels, they began to create proteins that changed the surrounding environment and influenced cell behavior. When the researchers prevented the proteins from interacting with cells, the cells' development process and subsequent “fate” changed, Penn Engineering News reported. 

Studies of how the cell interacts with its environment, specifically with the use of hydrogels, have increased over the past three decades, Penn Engineering News reports. This research has important applications for tissue engineering, drug screening, and more. The study’s finding that proteins are released into the hydrogel environment is important knowledge for researchers trying to study the effects of hydrogels alone, which additional proteins would complicate. A new labeling technique developed by the researchers could lead to better understanding of how proteins affect cell function. 

Burdick and Mauck also conduct research on biomaterials that can be used to regenerate body tissues. In 2011, they spearheaded a project to regrow cartilage tissue

Penn researchers also made strides in cell research this semester by discovering the important role sugars play in inter-cell communication using a groundbreaking technique known as atomic force spectroscopy. 

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