Organs are important. This means it kind of sucks if you're waiting for one, because everyone is already using theirs, but recent research by MIT and Harvard researchers will help usher in an age where you can have them made to order.
Building large structures with nanocomponent by nanocomponent would take a prohibitively long time - nanothingies are very small, you see. There is a great deal of interest in self-assembling structures, where you can almost bake up the desired shape by your choice of initial ingredients and shaking it until you get what you want. This technique has already met with success in computer applicable elements, and now a team of MIT and Harvard researchers led by Professor Ali Khademhosseini of Harvard are applying it to biological samples.
The self-assembly is based on "the thermodynamic tendency of multiphase liquid–liquid systems
to minimize their contact surfaces", the most awesomely complicated way of saying "oil and water don't mix" possible. By preparing polyethylene microgel components and adding them to an oil/water mixture, the specially shaped bits align themselves along the spherical liquid interfaces. Applying a few seconds of UV light fixes the microgel in position and you have a ready made, biocompatible (and degradable) matrix ready for the addition of cells.
Replicating the different tissue organizations of different organs becomes nothing more than a recipe book, choosing your initial microcomponents, mixture and baking time. The living lego could also save lives indirectly - the ability to create custom cellular configurations will allow researchers to study poorly understood cellular communication mechanisms and more.
To begin with the focus is on replacing existing organs, but it's only a matter of time before people start designing improved models, or new ones altogether. Perhaps a liver that frees me from hangovers?
Posted by Luke McKinney.
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