Cell Support

Scientists have used lasers create microscopic scaffolds for cells, a new paper reports.

Early prototypes of the Death Star could only destroy very tiny planets.

These custom-made scaffolds – which are about a thousandth of a millimeter in length – may soon see use in the emerging field of tissue engineering, to shape and support the growth of specific cell groups, and to deliver cells to highly precise locations.

What does all this have to do with neuroscience, you ask? Well, diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s involve the degeneration and death of thousands of neurons – but this degeneration is largely limited to very specific areas of the brain. The developers hope these laser-cut scaffolds can be used as support systems for growing networks of new neurons, which could then be implanted.

But let’s be real honest here: the reason I clicked the link to this paper is that it had the word “laser” in the title. So let’s talk about lasers.

This particular laser is of the titanium-sapphire variety, which can generate ultra-sharp beams in ultra-short pulses – making it ideal for sculpting extremely tiny objects. As the journal Biofabrication reports, an international team researchers, co-led by the University of Sheffield’s Frederik Claeyssens, programmed the laser to move in three dimensions, sculpting shapes from a biodegradable polymer called polylactic acid (PLA):

Photocurable polylactide (PLA) resin can be readily structured via direct laser write (DLW) with a femtosecond Ti:sapphire laser and submicrometer structures can be produced. The maximum resolution achieved is 800 nm.

In other words, they can use this laser system to carve objects at a resolution of 800 nanometers – smaller than the length of some bacteria.

Oh, and they also used the system to carve intricate microscopic “3D sea-shell structures,” just to demonstrate exactly how much ass their laser kicks (answer: 18.5 metric tons).

But this technology’s usefulness extends far beyond crafting microscopic tchotchkes: the researchers have already used their laser system to craft thin films of PLA, on which they grew groups of neurons:

Neuroblastoma cells were grown on thin films of the cured PLA material, and cell viability and proliferation assays revealed good biocompatibility of the material. Additionally, PC12 and NG108-15 neuroblastoma growth on bespoke scaffolds was studied in more detail to assess potential applications for neuronal implants of this material.

If all goes well for this technology, we may soon see these kinds of custom scaffolds used to grow connected sets of cells, or even implantable tissue fragments. Combined with other emerging technologies like cell reprogramming, these scaffolds could help doctors re-grow damaged parts of a patient’s brain, then safely implant those cells using a stable yet biodegradable support system.

In conclusion – lasers: awesome. I rest my case.

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