The innate ability of stem cells to self-renew and differentiate into multiple cell types makes them a promising source for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine applications. Their capacity for self-renewal and differentiation is largely influenced by the combination of physical, chemical, and biological signals found in the stem cell niche, both temporally and spatially. Embryonic and adult stem cells are potentially useful for cell-based approaches; however, regulating stem cell behavior remains a major challenge in their clinical use. Most of the current approaches for controlling stem cell fate do not fully address all of the complex signaling pathways that drive stem cell behaviors in their natural microenvironments. To overcome this limitation, a new generation of biomaterials is being developed for use as three-dimensional synthetic microenvironments that can mimic the regulatory characteristics of natural extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins and ECM-bound growth factors. These synthetic microenvironments are currently being investigated as a substrate with surface immobilization and controlled release of bioactive molecules to direct the stem cell fate in vitro, as a tissue template to guide and improve the neo-tissue formation both in vitro and in vivo, and as a delivery vehicle for cell therapy in vivo. The continued advancement of such an intelligent biomaterial system as the synthetic extracellular microenvironment holds the promise of improved therapies for numerous debilitating medical conditions for which no satisfactory cure exists today.
Keywords: biomaterials; differentiation; drug/protein delivery system; stem cell niche; stem cells; substrate elasticity; surface modification; topography.