Deconstructing, Replicating, and Engineering Tissue Microenvironment for Stem Cell Differentiation

Sze Wing Tang, Wing Yin Tong, Stella W. Pang, Nicolas H. Voelcker, Yun Wah Lam

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


One of the most crucial components of regenerative medicine is the controlled differentiation of embryonic or adult stem cells into the desired cell lineage. Although most of the reported protocols of stem cell differentiation involve the use of soluble growth factors, it is increasingly evident that stem cells also undergo differentiation when cultured in the appropriate microenvironment. When cultured in decellularized tissues, for instance, stem cells can recapitulate the morphogenesis and functional specialization of differentiated cell types with speed and efficiency that often surpass the traditional growth factor-driven protocols. This suggests that the tissue microenvironment (TME) provides stem cells with a holistic "instructive niche"that harbors signals for cellular reprogramming. The translation of this into medical applications requires the decoding of these signals, but this has been hampered by the complexity of TME. This problem is often addressed by a reductionist approach, in which cells are exposed to substrates decorated with simple, empirically designed geometries, textures, and chemical compositions ("bottom-up"approach). Although these studies are invaluable in revealing the basic principles of mechanotransduction mechanisms, their physiological relevance is often uncertain. This review examines the recent progress of an alternative, "top-down"approach, in which the TME is treated as a holistic biological entity. This approach is made possible by recent advances in systems biology and fabrication technologies that enable the isolation, characterization, and reconstitution of TME. It is hoped that these new techniques will elucidate the nature of niche signals so that they can be extracted, replicated, and controlled. This review summarizes these emerging techniques and how the data they generated are changing our view on TME. 

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)540-554
Number of pages15
JournalTissue Engineering - Part B: Reviews
Issue number6
Early online date5 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 2020
Externally publishedYes

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