Tissue engineering is definitely an exciting field – the ability to create living biological tissue in a lab could allow scientists to do things such as testing new drugs without the need for human subjects, or even to create patient-specific replacement organs or other body parts. While some previous efforts have yielded finished products that were very small, a microfluidic device being developed at the University of Toronto can reportedly produce sections of precisely-engineered tissue that measure within the centimeters.

The process starts with separate “biomaterials” being introduced to the device, via multiple channels. Those materials are then mixed together, forming into a sheet of what is known as “mosaic hydrogel.” This is a biopolymer that fosters the growth of cells into living tissues, so cells are seeded into the hydrogel as it’s being created.

A number of different types of cells can be used, and they are deposited into the gel with extreme accuracy – enough so that they can be placed in such a way that they replicate the cellular structure of a given natural tissue. One not-so-natural example of the device’s precise cell placement can be seen below.

The cell-seeded hydrogels can simply be taken from the device in their existing sheet form, or they can be wound around a drum as they’re produced. If the drum is used, the gels can be built up into rolls that are many layers deep, which could serve as the source of three-dimensional blocks of engineered tissue. Exact thicknesses can be achieved simply through the number of layers used.

Presently, the researchers are looking into using the device to create skin grafts for burn victims. The technology is in the process of being commercialized by tech firm MaRS Innovation.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Advanced Materials.

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