Student’s Award-Winning Poster Details Breakthrough in Investigating Cells

January 16, 2015

Shelby Buffington, a second-year PhD student in the Syracuse Biomaterials Institute, was awarded the Biomaterials Science Poster Prize by the Materials Research Society this fall. Her poster, “Utilizing Shape Memory Polymers to Generate Complex Wrinkles for Active Cell Culture,” details the creation of wrinkles on shape memory polymers to be used in cell culture — a breakthrough in investigating cells.

Scientists grow and study cells for a number of purposes, including the development of vaccines and tissue engineering, such as in stem cells. The process of growing cells is called cell culturing. Culturing typically occurs in vitro (latin for “in glass”) such as in test tubes or culture dishes. The surface that the culturing occurs on is called the substrate. The materials currently used in cell culture substrates are not particularly versatile —providing growing cells with a plain, two-dimensional surface of unchanging properties. This limits the ability to control cell-material interactions during cell culture and hinders an advanced understanding of fundamental cell processes.

“The problem with traditional substrates is that they have one fixed size, shape, and texture. The human body is an extremely complex environment. To get a better idea of how cells will respond in the body, researchers are trying to use more dynamic in vitro systems where you can really see how cells would respond to dynamic, changing surfaces in vivo,” describes Buffington.

Buffington’s work, conducted with REU student Derek Loh, provides a much more dynamic solution for substrates. It starts by using a special polymer, developed by Professor Pat Mather and Xiaofan Luo, founder and president of Polymakr LLC, that morphs into three different shapes by heating or cooling it. These “triple-shape polymeric composites” provide a great deal of flexibility when used as a substrate by changing the shape of the surface that a cell culture takes place on.

Buffington also applies the work of fellow PhD students, Pine Yang and Richard Baker, and her advisors, Professors James Henderson and Patrick Mather, to form microscopic wrinkles on the surface of the shape memory polymers by compressing the edges of the polymers in various ways. These wrinkles allow scientists to control the alignments of cells that rest atop the surface. By doing this, it is expected that this work will allow new ways to study cells and contribute to a more in-depth understanding of cell mechanobiology — the science of how a cell’s mechanical environment impacts its behavior and the impact this has on tissue development and disease.

Buffington says, “My current goal is to research the factors that impact these wrinkle formations. By further understanding this, I’m hoping to gain a lot of control over the patterns that are formed on the surface and move this material platform into a cell culture setting so that it can begin to have an impact on investigating cells.”

For more information on “Utilizing Shape Memory Polymers to Generate Complex Wrinkles for Active Cell Culture,” check out the following published research from the College of Engineering and Computer Science: