The concept of constructing organs out of nonhuman material may sound like science fiction, but according to bioengineer Ali Khademhosseinir, these technologies are well on their way to being deployed.
“We can take cells from a person and combine them with other things to create tissue outside of the body, then transplant it back into the person,” said Khademhosseinir, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Tissue engineering research uses a combination of living cells and degradable foams. The cells are initially placed on these degradable materials. As the cells start to populate the area — putting down “pillows” to cushion the area for the creation of new tissues — the foam begins to degrade.
Over time as the foam fully degrades, the cells reorganize themselves to form tissue-like structures.
“Cells are pretty smart. They have evolved to be able to make new tissues,” he said.
The technologies have been used to make simpler tissues like skin and cartilage in patients, but more complex tissues, like those in organs, have yet to be achieved.
Khademhosseinir’s team has, however, been able to create artificial heart tissue that closely resembles natural tissue — and which can actually beat.
Researchers at BWH also recently began researching the use of 3-D printing to create blood vessel-like structures, which are then covered with cells to create new tissues.
“The idea is to be able to one day take an image of a tissue that you want to make, put it in a computer, and the computer would literally print the cells and materials in the structure of the cells you want,” Khademhosseinir said. “Then we’d hopefully use them to make things like a piece of heart or liver or bone.”
Grant money from the National Institutes of Health was used for this research, and tissue engineering funding at BWH also comes from the Department of Defense. Philanthropic funding is growing as well, Khademhosseinir said.