Scientists Use Nanomaterials to Create Heart Tissues and Vessels

Jane Rho/Guardian

Researchers at the UCSD Department of Nanoengineering developed a new method to produce heart tissue and the surrounding blood vessels, allowing heart patients with scarred cardiac tissue to undergo transplants.

“Down the road you cannot wait for organ donation from someone,” Professor Shaochen Chen from the department of nanoengineering said.  “It takes time, and if you can make those tissues or organs, that could change the life of the patient. “

Chen and his research team received a $1.5 million grant from the National Institute of Health to create the tools necessary to generate tissue that mimics the human body in a natural environment starting from nanomaterials in the lab.

The process involves the use of nanomaterials to create a scaffold from which tissue can develop into a specific tissue. The scaffold eventually decomposes, leaving the artificial organ in its place. Chen’s research team focuses on precisely developing scaffolds with nanomaterials that allow cells to communicate with their environment and in the long run, develop therapeutic tools that can help cells grow into tissues and artificial organs.

Scaffolds are made of hydrogels — biopolymers that are biologically compatible with the human body — that allow transplants to occur without the danger of the body’s immune system rejecting the material. As the scaffold degrades, patients are left with their artificially engineered tissue. The scaffold can also contain tubes lined with cells that develop into fully functioning blood vessels. The lack of blood vessels in tissue regeneration can lead to tissue death.

To create a scaffold, the starting nanomaterial is a polymer in the form of liquid. Using mirrors and a computer projections system that precisely maps out the three-dimensional shape the scaffold should assume, and as light shines through the solution, the liquid solidifies into the projected scaffold. Chen’s research also involves investigating the ways to obtain light with the correct wavelength to use to print “biological” materials.

“Our body has nano-scale processors around it, so we can sense, see, feel – so nanotechnology is perfect for that kind of purpose” said Chen.

His group is focuses on nanomaterials, and uses them for biomedical engineering devices.

“Currently we are doing some research for using it not only in cardio cells, it can be used in other cells (we could be speaking of creating kidney tissue), you start with kidney cells or stem cells and then put them in the scaffold to grow ” said Chen.

This system is extremely cost-effective. The fabrication process involves a common computer projector and the polymer, which assumes the form projected by the projector. The total cost of production is around $1500, compared to the typical cost of an organ, varying from the average $60,000 for a kidney to, on average, $150,000 for a heart.

The software is automatic, meaning that the user only has to load the design into the computer, click a button, wait three hours and the sample would be ready.

“If someone – maybe myself or one of the students – is brave enough to start up a company – certainly they can do it, because the process is really cost effective,” Chen said.

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