Biology Builders exhibit at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2013

There’s a worldwide effort to do something called regenerative medicine, which is, I think, over the next twenty/thirty years is going to hopefully be the biggest thing in medicine. And it’s about curing patients that currently we can’t cure. An example would be if you have a heart attack, some of the heart dies, and the current treatment for that would be a drug which doesn’t repair the damage. It allows you to live with a heart that is not functioning as well as it should be. So, the long term aim is to actually have methods whereby we can get that patient’s heart back to how it was before the heart attack. The tissues of your body are made up from billions of cells, and they’re organised in a very clever way. And so what we are trying to do, is use new instrumentation that prints the cells precisely, and you need to start with some stem cells, these are the cells that make up all the tissues of our bodies when we develop from an embryo into our human bodies. And we’ve used them as an ink, so they go in a cartridge, and the printer eventually injects them onto a template in the precise postion that is needed. So it looks very much like a standard printer head moving in space, and building a structure in front of you. So many of our tissues of the body are hollow tubes. Things like blood vessels, your oesophagus, your trachea. So for those tissues, it should be relatively easy. We just pattern the cells on the outside and use the tube roller to make the final structure. It’s more difficult if you are thinking about tissues like say, your liver, your heart, even your kidney because they’re the architecture; it’s much more complex. Our first target is in bone repair, and this is partially because we think we can get into patients within the next five years. And the bones are very structurally strong, and the way in which they grow is that they elongate in one direction against the strain in the body. When we are trying to build a human organ we have got to work at different sizes, so down at the level of an individual cell we need to organise the cells and that’s on a size that’s thinner than the human hair. So we use a method for doing that where we spray at pattern, a very, very fine pattern onto a surface. And then we can do some fabrication and actually fold and roll that system so that it forms a tubular structure or a tissue-like structure. Printing an organ, you have to get two things right; you have to get the cells in the right position but you also have to print what we call a scaffold, and the scaffold is made of a plastic or a gel-like material. So that’s the non-living part, the cells are the living part. And we can print both of them at the same time. So you get the structure formed by the plastic and the function by the cells that are within it. There are other tissues where no adult has stem cells within them. We only had the right cells for a very short period of time when we are an embryo. And so tissues like the heart and the nerves that go down your spinal cord, we don’t have the right stem cells for those. So for those, we need to go back and use something called either and embryonic stem cell or an induced pluripotent stem cell; which is just a complex name for a cell that behaves like cells did right at that early stage of life. And if we are going to recreate those structures, we need to be very, very precise in exactly where cells are positioned. Down to the size of a single cell, which is tiny. So we have got a technique for doing that which uses these optical tweezers which are extremely delicate, extremely small tweezer systems that we can precisely locate and we can achieve the same level of control of aware cells are that you see in an embryo system. And so our hope is we can start to replicate some of the very early tissue formation processes. And that would unlock the process by which a human heart can regenerate itself. So there is some really important long-term clinical aims, if we can understand how to control cells in the way that the embryo does.

1 thought on “Biology Builders exhibit at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2013

  1. there is a huge difference between positioning and building! Next time please call them positioner or poser, because builder is all about integrity and structures!

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