Researchers at Columbia University have developed LEGO-like building blocks to create complex bioengineered tissues to perform specific tasks within the body.
The research involves a "plug-and-play" method to build cellular assemblies in various shapes that lock into templates, according to an announcement. The building blocks are tiny--a fraction of a millimeter of the thickness of a human hair. The tissue, then, can be created in specific architectures with a particular function, such as cardiac cells that are aligned to create maximum force in one direction.
The work is published at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Cells that are not aligned specifically for their intended task might never become fully functional, according to the article.
Methods used to make computer chips were applied to combine living cells and bioactive molecules into shapes such as cylinders and cubes. Each shape is prepared to have unique biological properties, then added to a hydrogel template. The blocks also are designed to dock independently, eliminating the need for sequential, brick-by-brick construction.
"We can now ask some of the more complex questions about how the cells respond to the entire context of their environment. This will help us explore cellular behavior during the progression of disease and test the effects of drugs, stem cells, and various other therapeutic measures," said Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Columbia Engineering and professor of medical sciences.
It's the latest example of medical researchers using chip-fabrication technology. Stanford researchers have collaborated with Intel on a technique that holds promise to improve diagnosis of multiple diseases and to quickly determine the most effective drug for a particular patient.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School, Boston Children's Hospital and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, meanwhile, have collaborated on a system to embed sensors in bioengineered tissue to monitor the chemical and electrical activity within that tissue after it's been implanted.
The Pentagon last summer kicked off a $17.8 million grant program in search of a 10-fold reduction in time and cost to create new medicines and biologically manufactured products.