Scientists grow cells on a robot skeleton (but still don’t know what to do with them)

The science of tissue engineering – or the growth of human cells for use in medicine – is very much in its infancy, with only the simplest laboratory-grown cells capable of being used in experimental treatments today. But researchers say a new method of tissue engineering could possibly improve the quality of this work: growing the cells on a moving robot skeleton.

Typically, cells used in this type of regenerative medicine are cultured in stationary environments. Think: Petri dishes and miniature 3D scaffolding. A number of experiments in the past have shown that cells can be grown on moving structures such as hinges, but these have only stretched or flexed the tissue in a single direction. But researchers at Oxford University and robotics firm Devanthro thought that if you wanted to grow a material designed to move and flex like tendons or muscles, it would be better to recreate their natural growing environment as accurately as possible. So they decided to approach a mobile human body.

Growing cells in a real person creates all sorts of difficulties, of course, so the transdisciplinary team decided to approach the human musculoskeletal system as best as possible using a robot. As described in an article published in Communication Engineering, they adapted an open source robot skeleton designed by the engineers at Devanthro and created a custom growing environment for the cells that can be fitted into the skeleton to flex and flex as needed. (Such growing environments are known as bioreactors.)

The location they chose for this tissue farming was the robot’s shoulder joint, which needed to be updated to more accurately approximate our own movements. Then, they created a bioreactor that could be fitted into the robot’s shoulder, consisting of strings of biodegradable filaments stretched between two anchor points, like a strand of hair, with the entire structure enclosed within a balloon-like outer membrane.

The skeleton was modeled on the open source Roboy model.
Image: Fisher Studios

The hair-like filaments were then seeded with human cells and the chamber flooded with nutrient-rich liquid designed to encourage growth. The cells grew over a two-week period during which they enjoyed a daily training routine. For 30 minutes a day, the bioreactor was slit into the shoulder and, for lack of a better term, faltered (albeit in a very scientific way).

Here’s the big warning though: while the team observed changes in the exercise cells that differed from those grown up in a stationary environment, they are still not sure if those changes were good.

The lead researcher on the project, Pierre-Alexis Mouthuy of the Botnar Institute of Musculoskeletal Sciences at Oxford University, said The Edge that the differences he and his colleagues observed in the cells grown in this way — which were based on measuring the activity and growth of certain genes — were, at best, ambiguous in terms of future medical applications.

“It simply came to our notice then [the movement of the bioreactor in the robot shoulder joint] but do those differences mean better cells? We don’t know yet, ”says Mouthuy. “We are not saying that this system is better than the others. Or is it a particular move that is better than the others. We’re just showing feasibility. “

So: the team has shown that growing cells in a robot skeleton is certainly possible. Now, they just need to figure out if it’s worth the time. In the article, however, the researchers enjoyed some optimistic speculation about the potential of this line of work. They argue that, in the future, detailed scans of patients could be used to create co-perfect reproductions of their bodies, allowing tissue such as tendons to be cultured for surgeries in human simulation.

For now, though, it’s back to the drawing board – or, rather, to the robot skeleton. As Mouthuy says, “We have to do a lot more work to understand what’s really going on.”

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