Synergistic growth factor microenvironments
Growth factors (GF) are remarkably powerful signalling molecules that orchestrate developmental biology. GFs are currently used in medical applications with limited success but it is clear that if their potential can be harnessed for biomedicine then they could underpin the discipline of regenerative medicine. However, while we understand that biology uses cell-secreted growth factors tethered to the ECM, biologists typically employ GFs in soluble format at high concentrations. When used in vivo, this causes off-target, unwanted effects, which severely limits their use. There is a vast amount of literature dealing with material systems that control the delivery of GFs. However, it was soon observed that GFs could be more effectively presented bound to surfaces from a solid-phase state rather than in soluble form, recapitulating the way the extracellular matrix (ECM) binds GFs. In parallel, evidence was found that within the ECM, GFs can actually work in cooperation with integrins and that this produced enhanced GF signalling due to the crosstalk between both receptors. Recently this knowledge was used to engineer microenvironments that target simultaneous integrin and GF receptor engagement seeking to maximise GF effects in vitro (e.g. in terms of stem cell differentiation) but also tissue repair in vivo (e.g. bone regeneration and wound healing). This feature article introduces the concept of synergistic GF/integrin signalling and then introduces GF delivery systems that were key in the development of more advanced synergistic growth factor microenvironments.