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In tissue engineering, we think about tissues as made up of two key components: 1) cells, and 2) the structure that the cells live in. The structure that cells live in is called the extracellular matrix. Think about the extracellular matrix as the cell’s “home.” It has physical spaces that the cells can live in and move throughout. At the same time, it gives cells a space to develop, multiply, and communicate with other cells.
Decellularization is a process in which cells are removed from their biological tissue, leaving the extracellular matrix (ECM) behind. Now, you may ask, “why would we want to do this?” There are several possible reasons. First, in tissue engineering, sometimes we like to study the extracellular matrix, without the cells being present. This helps us hone in on the chemical and physical cues that help our cells of interest live. Second, the extracellular matrix can be used to engineer tissues in the lab. For example, we can add new cells to our extracellular matrix “home” to create a tissue!
There are several methods that can be used to decellularize a tissue. Sometimes, we physically remove cells from the tissue through grinding, scraping, or freezing. We can also use specific chemicals to release the cells from the tissue. Finally, we can use enzymes to break down the cell membranes and release the cells.