Swedish researchers combined a scaffold made from gelatin with a tiny amount of rat brain tissue that had already had its cells removed. This “decellularised” tissue, they hoped, would provide enough of the crucial biochemical cues to enable seeded cells to develop as they would in the brain.
When the team added mesenchymal stem cells – taken from another rat’s bone marrow – to the mix, they found evidence that the stem cells had started to develop into neural cells.
There is a long way to go before any sort of clinical application could be considered, but Macchiarini envisages that a scaffold seeded with neural cells could help people with neurodegenerative disease. The death of brain cells is what causes symptoms in conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
It might also be possible one day to use transplants of bioengineered tissue to replace parts of the brain damaged, for example, by a gunshot, Macchiarini says, and to provide a matrix for native cells to grow into.
“We expect that a patient’s central nervous system cells could migrate into the implanted scaffold, adhere to it, grow and contribute to neural tissue regeneration,” he says.