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Mechanobiology is an emerging field of science at the interface of biology and engineering that focuses on how physical forces and changes in the mechanical properties of cells and tissues contribute to development, cell differentiation, physiology, and disease. A major challenge in the field is understanding mechanotransduction—the molecular mechanisms by which cells sense and respond to mechanical signals.
While medicine has typically looked for the genetic and biochemical basis of disease, advances in mechanobiology suggest that changes in cell mechanics, extracellular matrix structure, or mechanotransduction may contribute to the development of many diseases, including atherosclerosis, fibrosis, asthma, osteoporosis, heart failure, and cancer. There is also a strong mechanical basis for many generalized medical disabilities, such as lower back pain, foot and postural injury, deformity, and irritable bowel syndrome.
The effectiveness of many of the mechanical therapies already in clinical use shows how important physical forces can be in physiological control. For example, pulmonary surfactant promotes lung development in premature infants; modifying the tidal volumes of mechanical ventilators reduces morbidity and death in patients with acute lung injury; expandable stents physically prevent coronary artery constriction; tissue expanders increase the skin area available for reconstructive surgery; and surgical tension application devices are used for bone fracture healing, orthodontics, cosmetic breast expansion and closure of non-healing wounds.
Insights into the mechanical basis of tissue regulation may also lead to development of improved medical devices, biomaterials, and engineered tissues for tissue repair and reconstruction.
Stretch-activated ion channels, caveolae, integrins, cadherins, growth factor receptors, myosin motors, cytoskeletal filaments, nuclei, extracellular matrix, and numerous other molecular structures and signaling molecules have been shown to contribute to cellular mechanotransduction. In addition, endogenous cell-generated traction forces contribute significantly to these responses by modulating tensional prestress within cells, tissues, and organs that govern their mechanical stability, as well as mechanical signal transmission from the macroscale to the nanoscale.
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