Professor Krystyn J. Van Vliet,
Koerner Professor, Department of Materials Science & Engineering and Biological Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Biological cells reside in tissues that define the mechanical, chemical, and structural cues that can affect cell functions. Stem and progenitor cells in adults are particularly responsive to such cues, including changes in cell response during injury and disease. However, for many practical reasons the community typically studies and manufactures human cells in physical environments that are far from biological conditions – including orders-of-magnitude differences in the mechanical and structural cues of the materials to which these cells adhere. These differences can change cell behavior inadvertently to promote unwanted heterogeneity in cell populations, but when understood well can also be engineered to manipulate and manufacture cells more efficiently for basic research or clinical applications. Here we will discuss the coupling between mechanics, chemistry, and biology in driving such changes to cells ex vivo, and the potential advances gained by engineering those environments to replicate key components of cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions. Our focus is on predicting, measuring, and modeling this coupling from an engineering perspective with clear clinical applications. Our examples illustrating the key role of material mechanics for two cell types: adult mesenchymal stem cells from the bone marrow – the mechanically compliant compartment for blood and immune cell production – and oligodendrocytes from the brain – the mechanically compliant tissue in which neurons are wrapped by these cells.