Throughout our body, threadlike blood vessels (capillaries) branch off from veins and arteries like country lanes, weaving deep into tissues to transport nutrients and waste materials to and from remote locations. If a blockage occurs and blood supply is interrupted, tissue quickly dies. To understand the complexities of capillary growth and function, bioengineers are constructing carefully planned 3-D vessels in the lab. Vessels in this grid network (visualised using confocal microscopy) are only a hair’s width and have been engineered by etching fine channels into a block of collagen protein. The channels provide the foundations for human umbilical cord blood stem cells to grow, forming a cellular half-pipe. Two moulds clamped together complete the 3-D network through which blood is sent flowing. Simulated capillaries like these are helping scientists explore blood vessel architecture and work out how changes within them lead to damage and disease.
Written by Caroline Cross
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