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Building artificial organs using ‘biological Legos’

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May 17, 2010

A half sphere of polymer cubes built by researchers at the MIT-Harvard Division of Health ...

A half sphere of polymer cubes built by researchers at the MIT-Harvard Division of Health Sciences and Technology (Images: Javier Gomez Fernandez)

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Earlier this year we looked at a technique to grow 3D cell cultures using magnetic forces to levitate cells while they divided and grew, forming tissues that more closely resemble those inside the human body. Now researchers at the MIT-Harvard Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST) have devised a new way to achieve the same goal by using "biological Legos".

Tissue engineering has long held promise for building new organs to replace damaged ones, like livers, or blood vessels and other body parts. However, one major obstacle is getting cells grown in a lab dish to form 3D shapes instead of flat layers. To overcome this problem the researchers have encapsulated living cells in cubes and arranged them into 3D structures, just as a child would construct buildings out of blocks.

The new technique, dubbed “micromasonry”, employs a gel-like material that acts like concrete, binding the cell “bricks” together as it hardens. The tiny cell bricks hold potential for building artificial tissue.

To obtain single cells for tissue engineering, researchers have to first break tissue apart, using enzymes that digest the extracellular material that normally holds cells together. However, once the cells are free, it’s difficult to assemble them into structures that mimic natural tissue microarchitecture.

Some scientists have successfully built simple tissues such as skin, cartilage or bladder on biodegradable foam scaffolds. “That works, but it often lacks a controlled microarchitecture,” says Ali Khademhosseini, assistant professor of HST. “You don’t get tissues with the same complexity as normal tissues.”

The HST researchers built their “biological Legos” by encapsulating cells within a polymer called polyethylene glycol (PEG), which has many medical uses. Their version of the polymer is a liquid that becomes a gel when illuminated, so when the PEG-coated cells are exposed to light, the polymer hardens and encases the cells in cubes with side lengths ranging from 100-500 millionths of a meter.

Once the cells are in cube form, they can be arranged in specific shapes using templates made of PDMS, a silicon-based polymer used in many medical devices. Both template and cell cubes are coated again with the PEG polymer, which acts as a glue that holds the cubes together as they pack themselves tightly onto the scaffold surface.

After the cubes are arranged properly, they are illuminated again, and the liquid holding the cubes together solidifies. When the template is removed, the cubes hold their new structure.

Khademhosseini and former HST postdoctoral associate Javier Gomez Fernandez used this method to build tubes that could function as capillaries, potentially helping to overcome one of the most persistent problems with engineered organs - lack of an immediate blood supply. “If you build an organ, but you can’t provide nutrients, it is going to die,” says Gomez Fernandez, now a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard. They hope their work could also lead to a new way to make artificial liver or cardiac tissue.

Other researchers have developed a technique called organ printing to create complex 3D tissues, but that process requires a robotic machine that is not in widespread use. The new technique does not require any special equipment. “You can reproduce this in any lab,” says Gomez Fernandez. “It’s very simple.”

To get to the point where these engineered tissues could become clinically useful the researchers are looking at different cell types and the viability of tissue growth. They are also exploring the use of different polymers that could replace PEG and offer more control over cell placement.

The HST team's work appears in a paper published online in the journal Advanced Materials.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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