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Rutgers graduate unit studies effects of stem cell migration

Stem cells are multifunctional agents with the ability to develop into their surrounding environments. They can become bone cells, muscle cells or even nerve cells, which cannot be repaired or regenerated in the central nervous system.

KiBum Lee, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, is studying the effects of stem cell migration throughout the body with his team of graduate students.

The team is studying how stem cells move, interact and communicate with other cells, he said. These factors significantly affect stem cell behavior.

According to the National Institutes of Health, stem cells have the potential to develop into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth. In many tissues, they serve as a sort of internal repair system, dividing without limit to replenish other cells as long as the person or animal is alive.

Lee said his team is specifically interested in stem cell neuron differentiation, which allows the stem cell to become a neuron. This is achieved through observing the cell’s extracellular matrix.

The cell’s extracellular matrix — the outer shell that supports a cell’s structure and behavior — is used for understanding underlying mechanical forces resulting from its composition, he said.

This mechanical force is observed through testing three different types of substrates, or materials — soft, hard and in between, he said.

“If you culture a stem cell with different substrates, it has the ability to [become] neuron, bone or muscle cells,” he said.

When culturing a stem cell with a hard substrate, the cell is most likely to generate bone cells. He said they could also influence stem cells to generate neural cells.

The team also develops 2-D and 3-D patterns that correspond to various protein ECM patterns, he said. They use this to understand how stem cells interact with other cells’ ECMs.

This can also lead to understand how to determine and control cancer stem cell fate and behavior. Understanding this gives his team the ability to predict cancer cell behavior and deliver drugs to handle them.

Perry Yin, a graduate assistant in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, focuses on brain and breast cancer using nanomaterials, or materials smaller than a standard light microscope can see.

He said he uses hyperthermia, which is when body heat increases significantly, to kill the cancer cells.

“The main problem is that there can be side effects because the normal cells are heated as well, but that is why [we use nanoparticles] to induce hyperthermia in cancer [specifically],” he said.

Birju Shah, a teacher assistant in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, focuses on magnetic nanoparticles, which are able to bring a drug to a particular region.

“Since they are magnetic, if you put a magnet near the cell, all the magnetic particles will stick to the cell. [It’s] a way speeding up the process of delivery,” she said.

She was able to track magnetic nanoparticles by using a ball of iron and coating it in gold. The gold enabled them to use MRI technology and dark field microscopy, which are standard methods of tracking nanoparticles.

Sahishnu Patel, a fellow in Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, focused on a project called NanoScript, a nanoparticle-based artificial method for gene regulation and stem cell differentiation.

The goal of the project is to use a nanoparticle to successfully mimic transcription factors, which determine the fate of a stem cell, by using artificial transcription factors, he said.

The nanoparticle is placed into the stem cell and can see the development of muscle cells around it. It is effective for the replication of specific stem cells, he said.

Shreyas Shah, a teaching assistant in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, also discussed NanoScript.

Shah is working with neural cells and hopes to successfully put nanoparticle cells into the body to have a convenient and safe method of regenerating neural cells, he said. The central nervous system has a limited ability to regenerate neural cells.

He said with NanoScript, the team would hopefully be able to influence development of cells and help generate the proper cells for healing.

“Stem cells are powerful because they can become anything, depending on what [stage] they are in,” he said. “[They] become specialized [only in late development.]”

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