Regenerative medicine has the potential to revolutionise healthcare, but it still has many outstanding engineering challenges. While life scientists have the ability to grow cells that are a perfect genetic match with the patient, tissues need more than just cells. They also have distinctive shape and structure which must be accurately reproduced to successfully create replacement organs. Bridging the gap between cell culturing and tissue generation are engineers.
Dr Suwan Jayasinghe, of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, has developed technology which can control the deposition of cells. The cells are suspended in a liquid, loaded into a needle at high voltage, and squirted out using an electric field to shape and direct them. This creates a jet of cells which can be used a very precise tool to lay down cells in prescribed shapes.
To grow replacement organs for cuttingedge surgeries like the trachea transplant pioneered at UCL, scientists build a scaffold out of biocompatible material and grow cells tailor-made for the patient’s body over it. Until now, medics had to wait for the cells to migrate and grow throughout the structure – and this happens in their own good time. But with new engineering tools, cells can be distributed in the right combinations and places from the start.
Cells can also be used directly on or in the body. Using a system of needles within needles, Dr Jayasinghe produces hollow tubes of biocompatible polymer with a core of living cells. These fibres can bind a damaged site together and provide support while the cells inside develop – before dissolving to leave healthy, strong and brand new tissue.
Just one example of how research at UCL Mechanical Engineering could change the world.