How your mini 'clone' heart could be grown in a jar

How your mini 'clone' heart could be grown in a jar
From BBC - April 16, 2018

With advances in stem cell research and nanotechnology helping us fight illnesses from heart disease to superbugs, is the fusion of biology and technology speeding us towards a sci-fi future - part human, part synthetic?

In Ridley Scott's seminal blockbuster Blade Runner, humanity has harnessed bio-engineering to create a race of replicants that look, act and sound human - but are made entirely from synthetic material.

We may be far from realising that sci-fi future, but synthetics are beginning to have aprofound effect on medicine.

At their state-of-the-art laboratories in Hong Kong, scientists from Canadian company Novoheart are using stem cells to create bio-artificial hearts the company calls "hearts in a jar".

From just 2.5ml of your blood, Professor Ronald Li and his team are able to create stem cells that can then be turned into a miniature "clone" version of your heart that beats like yours and reacts to new drugs the way yours would. The process takes six months.

Prof Li believes the tech could speed up the flow of vital new medicines because potential side-effects could be spotted before reaching the expensive human trial stage.

"Drug development is a notoriously lengthy, expensive and inefficient process, typically costing $2-$3bn and taking more than 10 years to develop a single drug, with unacceptably high failure rates of 90% or worse," he says.

"The significant business risk has resulted in depletion of the pipeline of new drugs under experimental development."

Stem cell-derived, bio-artificial cloned organs built from the patient's own blood could eventually be the future of transplant medicine, says Prof Li.

"Stem cell-derived tissues and organs are not just science fiction any more."

As well as creating "hearts in a jar", biotech companies are also "printing" living tissue using specialised 3D printers. This tissue can be used to produce skin for grafts, or cartilage for joints, for example.

Methods of bioprinting differ but the underlying principle involves using genetic material or "bio inks" the way a normal printer uses ordinary ink, along with a "scaffolding" material to join the genetic material together to form specific shapes.

One bioprinting specialist, Aspect Biosystems, recently formed a partnership with Johnson & Johnson to develop 3D-printed knee meniscus tissue - the thin, fibrous cartilage between some of your joints.

"In the next 10 to 15 years, I believe we will see the first truly cell-containing bioprinted 3D tissues that are approved for use as implantable tissue therapeutics," says Tamer Mohamed, chief executive at Aspect Biosystems.

As well as cartilage and organs, the synthetic additions to our bodies could one day include "nanobots" - tiny programmable bio-machines patrolling our blood streams looking for cancer cells and bacteria to kill, just as our white blood cells do.

Arizona State University (ASU) scientists, in collaboration with researchers from the National Centre for Nanoscience and Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences recently programmed nanobots to shrink tumours by cutting off their blood supply.

Unlike machine robots made of mechanical parts, these nanobots were designed using "DNA origami", a technique involving DNA being folded into shapes. Each one was made from a flat, rectangular DNA origami sheet, 90 nanometres by 60 nanometres - a nanometre is a billionth of a metre - and a blood-clotting enzyme, called thrombin, was attached to their surface.

In the first such test on mammals of its kind, the team injected cancer cells into a mouse to create a tumour, then injected the nanobots.

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