Nano-architectures as biomimetic artificial niche for controlling human cells

Nanostructures on biological surfaces are fascinating. They make butterfly wings iridescent, help geckos defy gravity, keep shark skin free of bacteria, and repel water from flower petals. In human bodies, the architecture of the extracellular matrix has been linked to cancer formation and metastasis. Our lab has also discovered that the topography of the nanostructures within tissues, such as spinal cord and tendon, can guide the differentiation of adult stem cells to the major cell types of the respective tissues. Thus, nanostructures on the surfaces of cells, tissues, and organisms play a central role in life, and are at the intersection between materials science, chemistry and biology.

We aim to understand how these nanostructures work in nature. Studying these nanostructures is difficult, because native biological surfaces contain a complex, intertwining combination of factors that prevents a systematic investigation of the functions of surface topographies. We seek to copy these topographical signals to a new surface, away from their original biochemical context, and hence without the interference from other factors. Moreover, like deciphering a new language, we plan to vary these signals in a systematic, controlled manner, in order to elucidate their meanings and functions.

Combining the research strength of the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Science (MIPS), the Melbourne Centre of Nanofabrications (MCN), and the City University of Hong Kong (CityU), we aim to record the 3D architecture of biological surfaces (such as those in mammalian tissues and on marine organisms) and "print" these nano-features with synthetic materials, and to characterise the biological behaviours of microorganism and human cells on these surfaces.

Cancer cells actively remodel nanostructures of the tissue they resident in order to ‘built’ a favourable environment for its progression and spreading. This project aims at characterize tumour microenvironment by direct transferring the nanostructures of tumour biopsies onto synthetic materials, and systematically alter the features of the original tissue structures in order to find out the physical parameters within the microenvironment that complies the cancer progressing signal. The result will benefit future cancer drug/therapy development on the aspect of extracellular matrix remodelling and for the better design of in vitro cancer model development.

Depending on the scientific interest of the student, this research direction may involve mammalian cell culture, surface topographical characterisations (Atomic Force Microscopy etc.), nano-scale printing (Nanofrazor etc., cell staining, and microscopy.