Mesenchymal stem cells, characterized by their ability to differentiate into skeletal tissues and self-renew, hold great promise for both regenerative medicine and novel therapeutic discovery. However, their regenerative capacity is retained only when in contact with their specialized microenvironment, termed the stem cell niche. Niches provide structural and functional cues that are both biochemical and biophysical, stem cells integrate this complex array of signals with intrinsic regulatory networks to meet physiological demands. Although, some of these regulatory mechanisms remain poorly understood or difficult to harness with traditional culture systems. Biomaterial strategies are being developed that aim to recapitulate stem cell niches, by engineering microenvironments with physiological-like niche properties that aim to elucidate stem cell-regulatory mechanisms, and to harness their regenerative capacity in vitro. In the future, engineered niches will prove important tools for both regenerative medicine and therapeutic discoveries.
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