Tissue engineering could transform medicine. Instead of waiting for our bodies to regrow or repair damage after an injury or disease, scientists could grow complex, fully functional tissues in a laboratory for transplantation into patients. Proteins are key to this future. In our bodies, protein signals tell cells where to go, when to divide and what to do. In the lab, scientists use proteins for the same purpose -- placing proteins at specific points on or within engineered scaffolds, and then using these protein signals to control cell migration, division and differentiation. But proteins in these settings are also fragile. To get them to stick to the scaffolds, researchers have traditionally modified proteins using chemistries that kill off more than 90% of their function. In a new study, a team of National Science Foundation-funded researchers unveiled a new strategy to keep proteins intact and functional by modifying them at a specific point so that they can be chemically tethered to the scaffold using light. Since the tether can also be cut by laser light, this method can create evolving patterns of signal proteins throughout a biomaterial scaffold to grow tissues made up of different types of cells. Researchers could use this platform to study how living cells respond to multiple combinations of protein signals, for example. This line of research would help scientists understand how protein signals work together to control cell differentiation, heal diseased tissue and promote human development.
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