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Bioengineers Make Olympic Connection

University group uses nerve cells to create miniature, living Olympic Rings

SUNDAY, Feb. 10, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Bioengineering may not be a recognized Olympic sport, but that didn't stop a group of scientists at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City from joining the Games.

They did it by using nerve cells to create tiny, living Olympic Rings.

"We used a variety of techniques, some of which are derived from the semiconductor industry to make printed circuit boards, as well as technology derived from the tissue-engineering field," says Patrick Tresco, director of the Keck Center for Tissue Engineering at the university.

Just as the Olympics are a celebration of athletic excellence, Tresco says the living Olympic Rings help highlight the achievements made by biomedical researchers over the years.

This kind of bioengineering may some day be used to reconnect damaged nerves in people with traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries or to transplant nerve cells into brains of people suffering from Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or other diseases.

It took several weeks to create and photograph the nerve-cell Olympic Rings, which were 3.4 millimeters (about one-eighth of an inch) long. The photo of these miniature Olympic Rings shows an image of red dots, which are nerve cells and fibers as they appear in a fluorescence microscopic picture.

Here's a simplified explanation of how the Olympic Rings were created. A series of steps resulted in a special mold shaped like the Olympic Rings. The mold was coated with a protein that acts as an adhesive for meningeal fibroblasts - cells that form the connective tissue surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

The meningeal fibroblasts were added and allowed to grow for four days. They created a live scaffolding for nerve cells taken from the dorsal root ganglion of adult rats. These type of nerve cells are located just outside the spinal cord and relay sensory information from skin and muscles to the brain.

The nerve cells and connected fibers grew for four days.

To make a photograph of the miniature rings, the bioengineers added antibodies tagged with a fluorescent red dye. These antibodies attached to the proteins made by the living nerve cells. When placed under an electronic camera, the nerve cell bodies glowed a bright red; nerve fibers and the underlying fibroblast cells showed up as a less-intense red.

"The process of documenting their existence required that they didn't survive. But they are preserved for all time in a slide box," Tresco says.

While this was an ideal way to mark the Olympics, it was also an opportunity to raise public awareness about this kind of technology, Tresco says.

"It's important for people to understand we didn't do this because we thought it would be a challenge. We did it because we know we could," he adds.

"It was really a demonstration of where the field of tissue engineering is, and this kind of demonstrates collectively the know-how of the entire field -- not just of what is going in in my laboratory," Tresco says.

Although there have been great strides in this area of research over the past two decades, Tresco says it still could be at least 20 years before this kind of bioengineering is used on humans.

One hurdle is figuring out how to ensure that the transplanted nerve cells make the proper connections.

"We don't know precisely how the nervous system is wired," Tresco says.

"It's sort of like cutting a telecommunications cable. Without knowing how to reconnect all the individual wires, you wouldn't be able to get the same information flow," he explains.

What To Do

For an overview of tissue engineering, go to the Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative.

To learn more about spinal cord injuries and research, go to the National Spinal Cord Injury Association.

SOURCES: Interview with Patrick Tresco, Ph.D., associate professor, bioengineering, and director, Keck Center for Tissue Engineering, University of Utah, Salt Lake City; photo, courtesy of University of Utah
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