Scientists have designed an artificial surface that allows stem cells to stay alive and continue reproducing themselves for at least three months.
MIT researchers have made this first synthetic material that allows single cells to form colonies of identical cells and could be very helpful in treating ailments like Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries, reports Nature.
The researchers created about 500 polymers (long chains of repeating molecules) that varied in traits like roughness, stiffness and affinity for water, grew stem cells on them and analyzed each polymer's performance.
After correlating surface characteristics with performance, they found that there was an optimal range of surface hydrophobicity (water-repelling behaviour), but varying roughness and stiffness did not have much effect on cell growth.
They also adjusted the composition of the materials, including proteins embedded in the polymer.
They found that the best polymers contained a high percentage of acrylates, a common ingredient in plastics, and were coated with a protein called vitronectin, which encourages cells to attach to surfaces.
Using their best-performing material, the researchers got stem cells (both embryonic and induced pluripotent) to continue growing and dividing for up to three months. They were also able to generate large quantities of cells - in the millions.
The MIT researchers hope to refine their knowledge to help them build materials suited to other types of cells, said Daniel G Anderson.
"We want to better understand the interactions between the cell, the surface and the proteins, and define more clearly what it takes to get the cells to grow," he said.