Labs are currently working on growing synthetically engineered tissues such as muscle or cartilage needed for transplants. Towards that end, Cornell University engineers have developed a microvascular system that can nourish growing tissues. They have engineered tiny channels within a water-based gel that mimic a vascular system at the cellular scale and can supply oxygen, nutrients, and growth factors to feed individual cells.

The gel scaffold can hold tens of millions of living cells per milliliter in a 3D arrangement, such as in the shape of a knee meniscus, to create a template for tissue to form. In theory, the system could accommodate many kinds of tissue. The embedded microchannels allow fluid with oxygen, sugar, and proteins to travel through the system. The researchers can control the distributions of these solutes over both time and space within the developing tissue, allowing the fine-tuning of the biochemical environment of the cells while the tissue develops.

For example, the tissue may need to develop into bone on one side and cartilage on the other. Now the researchers can supply the right nutrients and proteins to certain parts of the growing tissue to ensure the intended outcome.

The researchers hope to use these engineered tissues in non-clinical applications, such as replacements for animals in the testing of pharmaceuticals and chemicals. The technology also offers the hope of growing implants from the patient's own cells to replace damaged or diseased tissue.

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