(Source: BusinessWeek)

Researchers at Brown University have successfully assembled "microtissue" subunits -- clumps of cells -- into complex tissue patterns seen here, by using a Jell-O like mold. Growing artificial tissues could end drug testing on animals and could essentially allow for human immortality.  (Source: Morgan Lab/Brown University)
New research could reduce the need to test new drugs on animals

The area of artificial tissues is a fascinating field of research.  From artificial blood vessels to synthetically grown muscles and cartilage, we're close to being able to grow the components to rejuvenate our bodies and advance research. 

Two key benefits from artificial tissues are the ability to offer replacements to aging or damaged tissue and the ability to test the effects of drugs and chemicals ethically without having to resort to less accurate tests on animals, or expensive tests on humans.  Such advances could eventually enable bioaugmentation and regrown limbs.

However, one dilemma is how to grow the complex shapes found in many living tissues.  Brown University biomedical engineers think they have found an answer.

The engineers invented a 3D Petri dish which they use to grow small clusters of cells of the target tissue type.  They have successfully assembled the cells into complex patterns, like honeycombs or donuts.  Assembly of clusters of different kinds of cells, as is typical in most organs, should also be possible.

Brown professor Jeffrey Morgan, who led the team, says the progress is a critical breakthrough with big implications for the fields of basic cell biology, drug discovery, and tissue research.  His team has succeeded in producing laced patterns resembling vasculature, meaning that a tissue with artificial blood vessels woven into it may be a possibility for the first time.

Professor Morgan's work was funded by the National Science Foundation and the International Foundation for Ethical Research (IFER).  IFER funded the research as it believes that artificial tissue research will help eliminate the use of animals in dangerous medical testing. 

Professor Morgan describes the work stating, "There is a need for … tissue models that more closely mimic natural tissue already inside the body in terms of function and architecture.  This shows we can control the size, shape and position of cells within these 3-D structures.  We think this is one step toward using building blocks to build complex-shaped tissues that might one day be transplanted."

The new work builds on previous research by the team in which they created the Petri dish made of agarose, a complex carbohydrate derived from seaweed.  During the previous work in 2007, the team created the dish, which has a consistency similar to Jell-O.  They then grew a cluster of cells in the dish, called "microtissues", but did not take the next step to assemble them into tissue-like patterns, which they did in this study.

In the recent study, the researchers used these blocks, placing them in more complex, larger agarose molds to create complicated patterns.  The microtissue then grew together, forming complex living patterns. 

Graduate students Adam Rago and Dylan Dean helped lead the study.  By aging the microtissue clusters, the students found they could control how tightly the cells adhered to the other microtissues in the mold.  The longer they let the cells age, the slower they fused.

The new study will be published in the March 1 issue of Biotechnology and Bioengineering and is currently available online.

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