Organ cell growth in 3 dimensions

06 November 2018
By Sam Brown.

A cell scaffold that recreates the mechanical, biological and electrical conditions that cells need to grow inside organs has been developed by researchers in the UK.

The new scaffolds are sponge-like structures that are soaked in a nutrient-rich culture medium; the cells grow inside the sponge and are fed nutrients through the culture media. The sponges are produced in a tube using a process called ice-templating. This involves freezing a mixture of the polymer from which the sponge is made, and water, in a mould or "template". The water is then evaporated using a technique similar to that used to prepare freeze-dry food, which leaves behind the sponge-like scaffold.

The concept is the brain-child of Cambridge University biochemist Roisin Owens. "If I want to grow cells in 3D in the lab, what I need to do is to recreate three different cues; biochemical, mechanical and electrical. That’s what we’re aiming to do with our three dimensional devices," she explains.

By controlling the make-up of the polymer used in the scaffolds, as well as the templating conditions, Owens and her colleagues can control the stiffness, size of the sponge pores and, crucially, the conductivity of the polymer in the sponge.

Since this is made from a conductive polymer, it's possible to eavesdrop on the electrical signals that cells use to communicate, providing a means of real-time monitoring of the health and viability of the cultures.

The team are using the system to model healthy organs and their interactions, starting with gut and the brain, to explore how one influences the other. Once these models are understood, the team can investigate the effects of different conditions on the health of the organ replicas.

"Once we’ve established the healthy model, then we can look at what happens if we try to model coeliac disease, or dysfunction in the gut if you add antibiotics. We could also look at how nutrition affects those things. If you kill off some microbes, how does that affect the interplay in the gut brain axis?"

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