Human tissues are biological materials with an intrinsic ability to adapt, self-repair, as well as process and store information. The extracellular matrix (ECM) surrounds all cells within the body and imparts each tissue with distinct biophysical and biochemical properties. The complex intercellular interactions, as well as the biomechanical cues from the ECM, profoundly affect cellular fate and function via dynamic reciprocity. This relationship dictates the growth and maintenance of all tissues through bidirectional signalling, mediated by the physical and compositional properties of the ECM. When altered, this relationship may lead to dysfunctional ECM deposition and/or cellular responses, resulting in pathological states.
Variation in the architecture or composition of ECM molecules change the physical properties of the ECM such as the tensile strength observed in the mineralized ECM in bones or the elasticity observed in the dermis of the skin. Moreover, each tissue has a distinct structure and function, yet the exact nature of tissue-specific mechanisms of ECM homeostasis and remodelling remains unclear. This raises the question of how the interactions between the resident cells in the microenvironment influence ECM architecture and composition during normal and pathological processes. It is thus of great importance to define ECM organization and composition across tissue types and design biomaterials in order to understand how the physical and biochemical characteristics of human ECM microenvironments direct cell behaviour and function.
The objectives of this theme are to understand the physical and biochemical characteristics of human ECM using a materials science approach and utilize these features to mediate cell fate and function in normal and pathological conditions. We will define, reconstruct, and tune the ECM to create bioengineered models that allow us to understand the key regulators of tissue-specific ECM architecture and composition in the context of tissue homeostasis versus disease.