At the University of California Berkeley researchers are refining a technique to use self assembling artificial viruses to create biological scaffolds. The goal is to create a tool with which to rebuild spinal cord tissue around damaged nerve cells.
From MIT Tech Review:
Some biological engineers are using scaffolds made of polymers to try to mimic the supportive matrix of real tissue. Seung-Wuk Lee, a bioengineer at the University of California, Berkeley, has turned to viruses instead. “Viruses are smart materials,” he says. “Once you construct the genome, you can make billions of phages, and they’re self-replicating materials.” The phage that Lee is working with, called M13, is long and thin like the protein fibers that make up the cellular matrices inside the body.
First, Lee and his colleague Anna Merzlyak genetically engineered M13 to display nerve-friendly proteins on their outer coats. These proteins are known to help nerve cells proliferate, adhere, and extend into long fiberlike shapes. Next, the researchers grew large numbers of the viruses in bacterial-cell hosts and dropped them into a solution containing neural-progenitor cells. These cells are more fully developed than stem cells but are still young and need coaxing to form new tissues. In the solution, the viruses align themselves like a liquid crystal, says Lee. He and Merzlyak used pipettes to inject the solution into agar, a Jell-O-like cell-culture medium, creating long, nerve-like fibers of the virus interspersed with cells. The progenitor cells then multiplied and grew the long branches characteristic of neurons. Lee says that the phage are well suited to making long, fiberlike structures such as nerve tissue but can also be made into more complex structures by varying their concentration or manipulating their position with a magnetic field.