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Artificial Wombs and Spider Silk Hearts! Sci-Fi Biotech is Here

Artificial womb to serve as a surrogate mother, a heart made of spider silk protein, a nose “growing” on your arm, bioengineered blood vessels and more. New technologies and techniques that will make us feel like we are living in a sci-fi movie are already here.

Scientific discoveries are being made every day at a rate never seen before. Biological and medical advancements that most people believed would never occur in their lifetime, let alone at this very moment, are now a reality and continue to develop. Such fields that could save and improve quality of lives are organ replacement and bioengineered body parts.

Researchers are doing a splendid job in inventing artificial wombs and placentas which could save around 15 million babies born preterm or premature every year. One artificial womb developed by a combined team of researchers from the Women and Infants Research Foundation, the University of Western Australia and Tohoku University Hospital in Japan gained a lot of attention. Their device and method successfully incubated healthy baby lambs in an ex-vivo uterine environment (EVE) for a one-week period. The technology might soon be helping preterm babies to fully develop.

“At its core, our equipment is essentially a high-tech amniotic fluid bath combined with an artificial placenta. Put those together, and with careful maintenance what you’ve got is an artificial womb,” explained lead researcher Matt Kemp.

In the paper, published in The American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, they presented the new promising approach. This time, the key was treating the preterm infants not as babies, but as fetuses.

“By providing an alternative means of gas exchange for the fetus, we hoped to spare the extremely preterm cardiopulmonary system from ventilation-derived injury, and save the lives of those babies whose lungs are too immature to breathe properly,” said Kemp.

There is also hope for those suffering from cardiac insufficiency. At the moment, only in rare situations, the damage of this nature can be reversed. Research is ongoing to develop cardiac muscle tissue produced from spider silk protein fibroin that gives the silk its structure and mechanical stability. The work indicates the possibility of printing artificial silk proteins using 3D-printing technology, therefore, represent the first steps towards future methods for engineering functional cardiac tissue.

One novelty that might soon be established as a practice are bioengineered blood vessels. The tissue of these artificially grown vessels was produced from human cells placed in a solution of amino acids, vitamins and nutrients. They grew around a tube-shaped mesh structure also called a scaffold, causing the cells to form into the shape of a blood vessel. Researchers even came up with creative techniques which demonstrated that spinach leaves stripped of cells can become a vascular network to deliver blood, oxygen and nutrients to grow human tissues.

However, maybe the biggest change will be brought forward by the driver of the 4th industrial revolution – the 3D printer. Printing human tissue will reduce our reliance on animal testing and enable us to develop better, safer, and cheaper drugs. Science is also paving a way for 3D-printed replacement organs made of a patient’s own cells, to eliminate the risk of rejection and hopefully make organ wait lists a thing of the past. As it seems, the future of biotech is just around the corner.

 

Learn more about ex-vivo uterine environment therapy in video below:

By Andreja Gregorič, MSc

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