Re­searchers find sweet in­spi­ra­tion for ar­ti­fi­cial or­gans

Modern Healthcare - - OUTLIERS ASIDES & INSIDES -

Re­searchers who have longed to grow ar­ti­fi­cial or­gans in a lab may have fi­nally found some sweet in­spi­ra­tion: a cot­ton candy ma­chine.

In the past there have been two ap­proaches to try­ing to grow ar­ti­fi­cial or­gans; a bot­tom-up method where cells are left to grow their own cap­il­lar­ies and the top-down ap­proach, where en­gi­neers cre­ate their own cap­il­lar­ies.

The first method can take weeks mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to stack the cells high enough with­out starv­ing the ones in the cen­ter. The lat­ter method led to cap­il­lar­ies that were too large, the small­est be­ing about 10 times the size of nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring ones.

Thanks to a fate­ful trip to Tar­get, a team at Van­der­bilt Univer­sity in Nashville has found an­other way.

Leon Bel­lan, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing, was re­search­ing the nanofiber-build­ing process of elec­tro­spin­ning when he first at­tended a lec­ture about the need to cre­ate ar­ti­fi­cial vas­cu­lar sys­tems for en­gi­neered tis­sue. Elec­tro­spin­ning made fibers that re­sem­bled cap­il­lar­ies, and of­ten these fibers were com­pared to silly string or cot­ton candy.

“So I de­cided to give the cot­ton candy ma­chine a try,” Bel­lan told Van­der­bilt Univer­sity News. “I went to Tar­get and bought a cot­ton candy ma­chine for about $40. It turned out that it formed threads that were about one-tenth the di­am­e­ter of hu­man hair— roughly the same size as cap­il­lar­ies— so they could be used to make chan­nel struc­tures in other ma­te­ri­als.”

Back in the lab, re­searchers used a de­vice that spun threads of a cell­friendly poly­mer that can be coated in a gelatin mixed with hu­man cells. The gelatin then goes into a warm in­cu­ba­tor, which keeps the threads solid while the gelatin sets. Once it cools, the threads dis­solve and leave be­hind a net­work of very tiny tun­nels, or ar­ti­fi­cial cap­il­lar­ies.

With this struc­ture in place, all sci­en­tists need to do is start pump­ing nu­tri­ents into the new or­gan and see if the cells sur­vive. The study found that after a week, 90% of the hu­man cells in their sam­ple or­gan were still thriv­ing.

The process for mak­ing cot­ton candy could lead to a way to grow ar­ti­fi­cial or­gans.

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