A stem cell is defined as a cell able to self-renew and at the same time to generate one or more specialized progenies. In the adult organism, stem cells need a specific microenvironment where to reside. This tissue-specific instructive microenvironment, hosting stem cells and governing their fate, is composed of extracellular matrix and soluble molecules. Cell-matrix and cell-cell interactions also contribute to the specifications of this milieu, regarded as a whole unitary system and referred to as “niche”. For many stem cell systems a niche has been identified, but only partially defined. In regenerative medicine and tissue engineering, biomaterials are used to deliver stem cells in specific anatomical sites where a regenerative process is needed. In this context, biomaterials have to provide informative microenvironments mimicking a physiological niche. Stem cells may read and decode any biomaterial and modify their behavior and fate accordingly. Any material is therefore informative in the sense that its intrinsic nature and structure will anyway transmit a signal that will have to be decoded by colonizing cells. We still know very little of how to create local microenvironments, or artificial niches, that will govern stem cells behavior and their terminal fate. Here we will review some characteristics identifying specific niches and some of the requirements allowing stem cells differentiation processes. We will discuss on those biomaterials that are being projected/engineered/manufactured to gain the informative status necessary to drive proper molecular cross-talk and cell differentiation; specific examples will be proposed for bone and cartilage substitutes.
Keywords: Stem cells, stem cell niche, bio-scaffold, bone, cartilage, regenerative medicine, tissue engineering, colonizing cells, extracel-lular matrix (ECM), physiological niche, homeostasis, paracrine signal-ing, cytokines, laminin, fibronectin, collagen, glycosaminoglycans, bone marrow stromal cells, hema-topoietic SC, he-matopoiesis, hematopoietic niche, bio-artificial tissues, glycosami-noglycan chains, protein polymers, Hydrogels, alginate, hyaluronic acid, arginin-glycine-aspartic acid, acto-myosin contractile apparatus, neo-autologous tissue, topography, Electro-spun fibers, proliferation, osteoblasts, mesenchymal cells, vascularization, Ilizarov technology, allogenic bone grafts, biomaterial grafts), skeletal tissues, osteoprogenitors, hydroxyapatite, tricalcium phosphate, osteo-mimesis, mes-enchymal cells, fabrication, rapid prototyping (RP) techniques, mosaicplasty, chondrocyte, poly(L-lysine), chondrosarcoma, fibronectin coatings, collagen-glycosamminogycan, gelatin, chitosan, poly(ethylene oxide) (PEO), fibrochondrocytes, F-actin filaments, soft lithogra-phy, dextran, hyaluronan, trypsinization, homeostatic interactions, carcinogenic process
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