Complex multicellular organisms, such as ourselves, start out from stem cells that differentiate into different kinds of cells. This process is controlled by groups of cells that secrete special signaling molecules called morphogens, which guide nearby stem cells to turn into the kinds of cells that should be located in that region. This is an important part of embryonic development, which could give clinicians the ability to grow organs and tissues if it could be harnessed.

Now, researchers at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland have managed to create a special device through which they can guide stem cells in different spots to turn into the specific cells they want. The microfluidic device essentially mimics some of the earlier stages of embryonic development.

The device can carefully deliver morphogens to groups of embryonic stem cells living and growing within its interior. The cells can be exposed to specific chemical gradients of the morphogens, as they would in the body, resulting in the growth of desired tissues in proper amounts.

In addition to helping to grow new tissues and organs, the technology may have important uses in drug testing, studying embryonic formation, and testing new therapies for various conditions.