Biomaterials are increasingly being used to engineer the biochemical and biophysical properties of the extracellular stem cell microenvironment in order to tailor niche characteristics and direct cell phenotype. To date, stem cell-biomaterial interactions have largely been studied by introducing stem cells into artificial environments, such as 2D cell culture on biomaterial surfaces, encapsulation of cell suspensions within hydrogel materials, or cell seeding on 3D polymeric scaffolds. In this study, microparticles fabricated from different materials, such as agarose, PLGA and gelatin, were stably integrated, in a dose-dependent manner, within aggregates of pluripotent stem cells (PSCs) prior to differentiation as a means to directly examine stem cell-biomaterial interactions in 3D. Interestingly, the presence of the materials within the stem cell aggregates differentially modulated the gene and protein expression patterns of several differentiation markers without adversely affecting cell viability. Microparticle incorporation within 3D stem cell aggregates can control the spatial presentation of extracellular environmental cues (i.e. soluble factors, extracellular matrix and intercellular adhesion molecules) as a means to direct the differentiation of stem cells for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine applications. In addition, these results suggest that the physical presence of microparticles within stem cell aggregates does not compromise PSC differentiation, but in fact the choice of biomaterials can impact the propensity of stem cells to adopt particular differentiated cell phenotypes.
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