Science research that will change the way you are treated
Brain and heart care breakthroughs on the horizon
Amazing miracles of science, advanced by research supported from the National Science Foundation (NSF) offer an exciting preview of future health and medical care. Here are some incredible science projects currently underway according to the NSF.
Most people see a vegetable when they see a spinach leaf, but in a lab at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, they see the potential to create heart tissue. Ph.D. students at the lab are training to be leaders in bioengineering, particularly biofabrication, in a unique research setting that promotes an innovator’s mindset. They’re thinking outside the box to develop practical, commercially viable technologies that fulfill critical unmet needs.
After 21 days in a culture, the minibrain, originally derived from postnatal rat cortex, contains multiple cells, including neurons (blue) and astrocytes (green). Nuclei are labeled in gray. The mini-brain was developed by a bioengineering team at Brown University and can form networks and are electrically active.
The human brain contains about 86 billion nerve cells, billions of nerve fibers and trillions of connections between them. To probe this complex network, in 2015, National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded researchers developed a 3-D model of about 8,000 nerve and supporting cells, described as a “mini-brain.”
Unable to think but electrically active, the mini-brain offers an inexpensive, easy-to-make model to study nerve cell networks and the impact of drugs on nerve tissue or nerve tissue transplants. The mini-brain costs about a quarter to grow.
In 2017, the researchers discovered that the mini-brains produce networks of capillaries, a critical feature needed to study brain conditions, injuries and diseases such as stroke, concussions and Alzheimer’s. Researchers can now alter tissue conditions or introduce drugs to observe tissue responses.
Part education tool, part neuroscience party trick, the Glassbrain app was first used on stage in 2012 on Mickey Hart, former drummer for the Grateful Dead, to show his brain reacting to music. A cap detects the different types of waves and signals pinging across the user’s brain. The app then displays them in real time on a 3-D image built from brain scans taken earlier. Each color represents source power and connectivity in a different frequency bands–theta, alpha, beta, gamma–and the golden lines are white matter anatomical fiber tracts. Estimated information transfer between brain regions is visualized as pulses of light flowing along the fiber tracts connecting the regions.
Right now, the app is not sophisticated enough for clinical applications, but is mainly used for education and entertainment. But Roger Anguera Singla, one of the app’s programmers at the University of California in San Francisco, hopes to build in value for medical professionals, too; for example, to allow neurosurgeons to “fly inside” a functional brain and better plan an upcoming surgery.
Bioengineer Jeff Jacot is working on an idea that could transform the medical approach to infants with complex and sometimes fatal heart defects. With support from NSF, Jacot and his team at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus are pioneering new techniques in regenerative medicine, including a heart patch made of an infant’s own tissue that would repair the defect and then grow right along with the baby. The team is using a process called electrospinning to make the patches in the lab.
Printing Heart Tissue
From housewares to toys to high fashion, 3-D printers can be used to make many different things. Printing one layer at a time, 3-D printers use materials like plastics and metals to build intricate and complex objects — such as tools, replacement parts even prosthetics. In engineering, this type of construction is referred to as “additive manufacturing.” In Pittsburgh, one biomedical engineer, Adam Feinberg at Carnegie Mellon University, has come up with a technique that expands the use of 3-D printing technology and could one day allow researchers to print heart tissue.