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Bioengineered Cell Walls Open New Possibilities
July 25, 2019

Biomedical engineers at Penn State have developed a process to build protective, synthetic plant cell walls around animal cells. The work, published in Nature Communications, could hold significant potential for a variety of medical and biomanufacturing applications for human health.

Illustration of a bioengineered cell wall section magnified to demonstrate the final 3D structure. Image credit: Yong Wang

Plant cells are individually encased in ultrathin cell walls that maintain the cell’s structure and protect the cell’s inner organelles from environmental assaults such as heat and shear stress. Human and other mammalian cells don’t have this exterior wall, leaving them vulnerable to damage or destruction. By creating a cell wall made of biomimetic materials — synthetic materials that mimic biology — researchers can protect human cells for use in vitro cell therapy to treat disease and in bioprinting.

While some techniques, such as hydrogel encapsulation, currently exist to help protect mammalian cells in the laboratory setting, they are thick and limit nutrient and oxygen access, limiting cell survival. According to Yong Wang, professor of biomedical engineering and principal investigator on the study, this problem of how to better protect cells has been studied for half a century. While many researchers have tried various methods, Prof. Wang’s approach is novel.

“No one has ever built up a nanoscale material that can really mimic the structure and functions of plant cell walls; our concept is completely new,” Prof. Wang said.

According to information, called biomimetic cell walls (BCWs), this nanoscale material mimics the structural strength and functions of plant cell walls. Prof. Wang compared the process of creating BCWs to building a house. A foundation is laid before the framework can be erected. Once the framework is up, the floors and ceilings must be finished.

Prof. Wang said the study revealed how nucleic acids, the complex organic polymers that make up the genetic material of all cells, can be used as a structural template to guide nanoscale assembly for a variety of molecules. Critically, the guide also allows the non-nucleic acid materials to attach to the cell surface, enabling the BCWs to encase the cells.

“Most importantly, this process does not involve any complicated equipment. But it enables mammalian cells to be protected in vitro and in vivo,” Prof. Wang said. “The BCWs basically become part of the cell.”

Once the cells are encased in BCWs, the researchers demonstrated that the cells are protected not only from physical assaults, but also from biological attacks such as immune system rejection.

“When you implant the cells into a host, the patient’s immune system will fight against the transplanted cells and kill them,” Prof. Wang said. “If we have this bioengineered cell wall on the cell surface to protect cells from biological assaults, they can survive long enough for effective cell-therapy treatments for diseases such as cardiac disorders and diabetes.”

Prof. Wang also noted that BCWs could have a significant impact on biomanufacturing, especially 3D bioprinting. Used to build tissue, bone, blood vessels and, potentially, even organs, the bioprinting ink consists of living cells.

This work was funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and Penn State.

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