Researchers have found a way to build nanoscale "scaffolds" that can be seeded to grow engineered human tissues. And the system promises a way to monitor the chemical and electrical activity within that tissue after it's been implanted.
The research, from Harvard Medical School, Boston Children's Hospital and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was published this week in the journal Nature Materials.
Using electrodes to measure activity in cells or tissue damages them. This is the closest the team has come to creating electrical components in scale with the cellular level, cells that potentially could be stimulated and their reactions monitored, according to an announcement from Boston Children's Hospital. Such tissue holds promise for better understanding reactions to new drugs, among other uses.
Taking inspiration from the autonomic nervous system, which monitors pH, chemistry, oxygen, and other factors, the researchers sought to develop the same type of feedback for the new tissue.
First they built mesh-like networks of nanoscale silicon wires--a process similar that used to etch microchips, according to a Harvard Gazette article. They used heart and nerve cells in growing the tissue, but rather than attempting to grow tissue in two dimensions--thin layers atop a base medium--their wire mesh could grow tissue in 3-D. And rather than the mesh dissolving away, as in previous bioengineering efforts, this became part of the structure, with embedded electrodes that could monitor cellular activity without damage.
The researchers also were able to create bioengineered blood vessels with technology to measure pH change, such as a response to inflammation, ischemia or other conditions.
Innovators have been making strides with 3-D technology, including Organovo, a startup that in 2009 created a bioprinter that uses human cells to "print functional human tissue." And nanotechnology combined with cell phones has been getting its share of attention, including a device developed by UCLA researchers to determine, on the fly, whether a patient has HIV, malaria, syphilis or TB.
In another use of semiconductor technology in healthcare, Stanford researchers and Intel have teamed up on a technique to detect lupus by studying the reactions of short pieces of biological proteins associated with the disease on silicon chips, much like those found in computers.