Researchers at the MIT-Harvard Division of Health Sciences and Technology have found a way to encase living cells in stackable cubes to create what some are calling LEGO organs.
Building things out of toy blocks has long been a favourite pastime of children and adults the world over. Why should biomedical engineers be left out of the fun?
This new process, dubbed "micromasonry", might be the answer to an issue that has long plagued tissue engineers.
Obtaining the cell material needed to create artificial human organs and blood vessels is simple enough. Researches use enzymes to break down the extracellular materials holding cells together, leaving them with free cells.
The problem lies in taking those free cells and forming them into shapes that mimic natural tissue microarchitecture. Scientists have tried using biodegradable foam to bind cells together, but the resulting tissue generally lacks the complicated architecture of its natural equivalent.
Enter micromasonry. HST researches coat the cells in a version of the liquid polymer polyethylene glycol that becomes a gel when exposed to light. By suspending cells in the liquid and then allowing them to harden, the researchers are able to create cellular cubes that measure 100 to 500 millionths of a metre wide.
Cellular LEGO blocks, if you will.
Once the cubes are formed, they can be stacked into a template, coated with more polyethylene glycol, and exposed to light once more, leaving a stable structure of gelled cell blocks, ready to be put to use.
At the top of the story you'll see a structure created from the cellular building blocks. If my organs looked that pretty, I'd install a window.
Not only does the process produce quick and attractive results, it's also so simple it can be reproduced in any lab without the use of specialised equipment.
The process is still in early testing phases, with the team building structures that could be used at blood vessels.
"Micromasonry" still has a long way to go. Researchers are still looking at different cell types and the potential for tissue growth, while exploring different polymers that might give them more control over the building process.
Hopefully they'll get the process finalised and reader for use in time for the next installment of Atlus' Trauma Team.