Human mesenchymal stem cells.
UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering Human mesenchymal stem cells.

Although it sounds bizarre, the question of whether something is made or born will likely become more frequent in synthetic biology—an expanding field in which nanoengineers manipulate or construct new materials with biological substances.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) recently discovered a way to catalyze bone development from stem cells, based on the way the cells utilize calcium phosphate to produce the fundamental metabolic molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP). By carefully introducing a specific mineral to the stem cells, the scientists created a natural opportunity for cell-specialization in the form of bone tissue. The researchers aim to apply this research to growing muscle and blood vessel tissues from stem cells, with the general goal to have a versatile toolkit for replacing a variety of damaged cells.

A few years ago, UCSD researchers created new biomaterials that perform similarly to human tissue. Nanoengineering professor Shaochen Chen and his team at UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering employed a novel biofabrication platform to construct 3D scaffolds of polyethylene glycol using light, mirrors, and computer projection. The resilient material possesses a negative Poisson's ratio, meaning that it doesn't wrinkle when stretched, making it a good candidate for blood vessel tissue grafts.

Polyethylene glycol scaffolds expanding with stretching.
UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering Polyethylene glycol scaffolds expanding with stretching.

It is worth noting that both of these projects are not led by traditional biologists, but by engineers. Like architects, engineers are skilled at understanding how various material assemblies are constructed, as well as how to work with a variety of disciplines towards a common goal.

"As engineers, we want to build something that is reproducible and consistent, so we need to know how building factors contribute to this end," said Shyni Varghese, an associate professor of bioengineering, in a UCSD press release. "What we do is use engineering principles to solve a biological problem, and by integrating many research disciplines from molecular biology to engineering to medicine," she added.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.