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Friday, 3 March, 2000, 23:59 GMT
Scientists teach cells to line-up
Notts Uni
The cells grew along a peptide trail
By science editor Dr David Whitehouse

Researchers have shown that cells can be "trained" to grow, one by one, along a chemical trail.

This feat, conducted at Nottingham University, in the UK, is an important step towards the goal of growing all tissues to order in the lab.

One day, scientists believe they will be able persuade nerve cells to grow again to repair spinal injuries. It might even be possible to take cells from your bloodstream and coax them into growing a new organ for transplantation.

These are just two of the tantalising possibilities that are envisioned for the interdisciplinary science of cell engineering. Scientists are anxious to stress that it will be many years into the future before any such advances are realised.

But understanding of the body's most basic units is increasing at a rapid rate and it is not unreasonable to think that we could build organs and other structures with cells in the same way that we build somewhat larger structures with bricks and girders.

Synthetic materials

Dr Kevin Shakesheff, of the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Nottingham, told BBC News Online: "Our own bodies are achieving amazing feats in materials production every day. They produce materials that are far more complex and perfectly formed than any current synthetic materials."

Dr Shakesheff is finding out how cells work by redesigning the extra-cellular matrix, the scaffold that surrounds the cells and acts like a 'glue' to stick the cells together.

"Our own cells produce a natural scaffold that provides a support structure that holds tissues together. It is a complex mixture of biological molecules that are organised into fibres and networks."

Not only is this scaffold a remarkable mechanical structure, it also transmits data as well. "Incredibly, this structure not only supports the cells but also signals to them, telling them how to repair damaged regions," the Nottingham researcher said.

Experimenting with cells, Dr Shakesheff and his colleagues have been able show that they will line up along a chemical trail laid on a flat surface, even when the trail is only as wide as a single cell. It is, believe the researchers, just the beginning.

Donor shortages

"Being able to grow organs would mean we could be much more efficient in our use of animal tissue in research. For example, if we could take one liver and engineer the cells so that it would form 1000 identical mini-livers in the laboratory, we could use small amounts of tissue to test thousands of drug molecules.

"Ultimately, it would be wonderful to be able to take one donated human liver and grow many engineered livers. Then we could overcome the problem of donor shortages for liver transplantation."

Artificial organs grown using cell engineering are in the future. But before that, cell engineering is already providing some benefits for patients. Skin grown in the lab is already available and used to treat burns victims or to aid the healing of ulcers.

In the US, it has been possible to repair cartilage, a simple tissue that contains only one type of cell and no blood vessels.

"It's exciting to work at the interface between biology and materials science," Dr Shakesheff said.

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