The multipotent nature of stem cells provides enormous potential for clinical applications for treatment of disease, cancers, and for organ replacement. Despite decades of research, robust culture techniques that consistently permit isolation, expansion, and directed differentiation of stem and progenitor cells in adequate numbers remains a major hurdle to ensure full clinical usage of stem cell therapies.
Tissue engineering and microfabrication technologies have arisen as invaluable tools to probe the spatial and temporal cues that govern stem cell fate. The ability to precisely pattern cells and external signals in 2D and 3D enables investigations into the roles of niche components on stem cell plasticity and differentiation.
These approaches require:
1. Biocompatible scaffolds with defined mechanical properties
2. Microfabrication of scaffolds and signals into specific geometrics
3. Controlled seeding and placement of cells and signals
4. Effective culture systems for nutrient delivery
5. Readout systems to monitor cellular activity during culture
While extensive research has been conducted in establishing these technologies, the generation of functional stem cell niches and culture systems will require a multidisciplinary approach that combines and applies these technologies into functional stem cell environments. Combination of engineering approaches with traditional cell biology approaches will facilitate recapitulation of functional stem cell microenvironments and advance our knowledge of functional stem cell niches.