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MedicalFrontiers| NewScientistTheCollection|75The secret to repairing our bodies and growing neworgans is getting all touchy-feely, saysBob HolmesLet’s getphysical”Simply exposestem cells to flowingfluid and they turninto blood vessels”YOU started life as a single cell. Now youare made of many trillions. There aremore cells in your body than there arestars in the galaxy. Every day billions of thesecells are replaced. And if you hurt yourself,billions more cells spring up to repair brokenblood vessels and make new skin, muscleor even bone.Even more amazing than the staggeringnumber of cells, though, is the fact that, byand large, they all know what to do – whetherto become skin or bone and so on. Thequestion is, how?“Cells don’t have eyes or ears,” saysDennis Discher, a biophysical engineer at theUniversity of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.“If you were blind and deaf, you’d get aroundby touch and smell. You’d feel a soft chair tosit on, a hard wall to avoid, or whether you’rewalking on carpet or concrete.”Not long ago, the focus was all on“smell”:that is, on how cells respond to chemicalsignals such as growth factors. Biologiststhought of cells as automatons that blindlyfollowed the orders they were given. In recentyears, however, it has started to become clearthat the sense of touch is vital as well, allowingcells to work out for themselves where they areand what they should be doing. Expose stemcells to flowing fluid, for instance, and theyturn into blood vessels.What is emerging is a far more dynamicpicture of growth and development, with agreat deal of interplay between cells, genesand our body’s internal environment. Thismay explain why exercise and physicaltherapy are so important to health andhealing – if cells don’t get the right physicalcues when you are recovering from an injury,for instance, they won’t know what to do. Italso helps explain how organisms evolve newshapes – the better cells become at sensingwhat they should do, the fewer geneticinstructions they need to be given.The findings are also good news for peoplewho need replacement tissues and organs. Iftissue engineers can just provide the rightphysical environment, it should make it easierto transform stem cells into specific tissuesand create complex, three-dimensionalorgans that are as good as the real thing. Andresearchers are now experimenting with waysof using tactile cues to improve wound healingand regeneration.Biologists have long suspected thatmechanical forces may help shapedevelopment. “A hundred years ago, peoplelooked at embryos and saw that it was anincredibly physical process,” says DonaldIngber, head of Harvard University’s WyssInstitute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

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Term
Winter
Professor
mohd hafedz bin bohari
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