Growing functional blood vessels, especially capillaries, is not an easy task. MIT bio-engineers have come up with a method to make it much easier.

Scientists and bio-engineers have been growing all sorts of interesting things in labs lately -- small advances are made in the field of tissue engineering every day. Scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led by Institute Professor Robert Langer, have made another such little leap with vascular tissue according to a recently published paper.

Growing blood vessels is not new and have been done for several years. One of the inconveniences of prior methods, however, was that when grown, the tissue would "spider" out in any direction, yielding useful, but not easily worked with biomass. The new technique by Langer and associates is able to grow the cells in a parallel structure, creating groups of tubes instead of a jellyfish mess.

Using micro-fabrication machinery at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, the group etched out nano-scale patterns on a bed of silicone elastomer. The patterns, a collection of ridges and grooves, guide the direction of cellular growth to make it uniform rather than random.

"The cells can sense (the patterns), and they end up elongated in the direction of those grooves," explained Christopher Bettinger, an MIT graduate student and lead author of the paper. The cells aligning and elongating along the grooves in the silicone substrate create multi-cellular structures known as band structures.

The scientists used endothelial progenitor cells (EPCs) in their successful experiments. Attempts with other types of cells, including mature endothelial cells, did not yield results as promising as the EPCs, failing to create the necessary band structures.

After the flat tissue has been grown on the substrate, the researchers apply a commonly used gel that induces three-dimensional growth. The finished product is a group of parallel tubes that could be used in medicine to replace faulty or failing capillaries in areas where blood flow is critical for moving nutrients and wastes – areas like the liver, heart or kidneys.

As capillary structures are not necessarily straight lines, this technology will improve medical work in that any sort of simple pattern could be grown on the silicone surface simply by machining the ridges and grooves into the desired shape. "With this technique, we can take the guesswork out of it," said Bettinger.

The group had not yet at the time of the paper's publication attempted to integrate the engineered tissue into a living organism.

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