Growing 3D skin in a dish

Scientists grow cells all the time. These can be used to help model disease and test new drugs in the lab.

Jennifer Shelley, a PhD student in the Davidson Lab at the Centre for Inflammation Research, is using a new innovative technique to grow skin cells into a 3D structure. She hopes to use this to develop new treatments for Atopic Dermatitis, the most common form of eczema.

Jennifer explains this technique, and its benefits over traditional skin models, by comparing skin to a brick wall.

Communities matter – how cells co-operate to decide their collective fate

Professor Sally Lowell
Professor Sally Lowell

In current circumstances, community matters more than ever. It seems that co-operation in communities of cells is also important in early development of the embryo. Group leader Professor Sally Lowell (Centre for Regenerative Medicine) recently wrote on this matter in Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology. Here she talks about the work of her own lab looking at how cell communities work together in early embryonic development.

Communities matter

Our lab has a longstanding interest in community effects.  This started when our PhD student Karolina Punovuori discovered that cell-cell adhesion molecules called cadherins do more than just stick cells together. It seemed that they could in fact be helping cells to coordinate differentiation decisions with their neighbours. For example, as pluripotent cells start to express one particular cadherin, called N-Cadherin,  this adhesion molecule seems to somehow be able to make cells a bit more ‘deaf’ to certain anti-neural signals. This ‘dampening’ of anti-neural signals helps to reinforce the decision to turn into a neural cell. Because cadherins bind to each other on adjacent cells, we speculate that cells might use cadherins to spread information between neighbours in something akin to a community effect.




As I discussed in the Nature Reviews article, the field is looking for new technologies to help us all to identify and study community effects. Our former postdoc Dr Guillaume Blin, who now runs his own lab at the CRM, has developed software called “NesSys” that makes it possible to identify and measure the properties of every cell in relation to all of it’s neighbours within a tissue or 3D culture. This opens up the possibility of asking questions about how the differentiation decisions of one cell relate to those of the other cells in its local community.

What next?

Looking to the future, the lab are working hard to use NesSys to explore community effects at gastrulation and during differentiation of pluripotent cells in a dish. For example, PhD student Darren Wisniewski is examining mechanisms that seem to coordinate mesoderm differentiation between nearby cells under certain conditions. Postdoc Matt Malaguti is working with PhD student Jen Annoh to develop new synthetic biology tools to give us an alternative non-imaging based approach to study how cells influence their neighbours during differentiation, and PhD student Matt French, in collaboration with CRM PI Linus Shumacher, is exploring how we can add some mathematical rigour to these ideas by modelling the effects of different types of neighbour-interactions.


So, the whole lab are working together to a common goal of understanding how local communities of cells help each other to decide their collective differentiated fate. We are delighted to have recently been awarded funding from the Wellcome Trust to keep pushing this work forward.
Professor Sally Lowell and her research group
Professor Sally Lowell and her research team
Professor Sally Lowell is a group leader at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine and Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow.


Lowell, S. You should always keep in touch with your friends: Community effects in biology. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol 21, 568–569 (2020).

Welcome to IRR Stories

This site will be a place for stories about our science and behind the science. Stories of the people and places that make up our institute and make the science happen.

The Institute for Regeneration and Repair (IRR) is a research institute based at the University of Edinburgh. Our scientists and clinicians study tissue regeneration and repair to advance human health. IRR incorporates the Centre for Regenerative Medicine (CRM) and the Centre for Inflammation Research (CIR).

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