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27 November 2014

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Science and Nature

Cells trapped in electrical fields
Cells trapped in electrical fields

Making blood from volts

How do you turn electrical volts into blood? It’s a concept that sounds like an utter impossibility but scientists at The University of Manchester have developed a new technique which uses electricity to engineer human tissue and bone marrow.

What does it mean?

  • Dielectrophoresis - The migration of particles of a non-conductor towards the position of maximum field strength in a non-uniform electric field
  • Micron - one millionth of a metre

Dr Gerard Markx, of the School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science, has developed the technique based on a phenomenon called dielectrophoresis. The technique uses electric fields to build up layers of cells, forming tissue called hematons – collections of blood producing cells essential in the function of healthy bone marrow.

Here comes the science

So how does it work? It’s surprisingly simple. Micro-electrodes are etched on series of glass slides and a cell solution goes in-between them. Electric fields are then created by running a small AC current through the electrodes.

Magnetic fields shown by iron filings
Magnetic fields shown by iron filings

Just like the way iron filings are attracted to the poles of magnets, the cells are attracted to the regions between the electrodes. As the cells collect together, layers build up and tissue is formed.

The use of electricity gives greater control over the cells than is currently possible, because by varying the voltage and using different shapes, cells can be positioned and stacked on top of each other in any pattern. Different electric fields can also be used to attract different types of cells. But most important of all is the fact that the cells can be kept alive and active.

But why’s it important?

Dr Markx and his research team have so far created tissue 200 microns thick, which may not seem like much, but the possible implications are incredible.

"We have proven this technique works, and have created some very simple Hematon structures in the lab," says Dr Markx. "If we can perfect this then it may be possible to create artificial bone marrow outside the body and produce any given blood type."

That means the treatment of bone marrow diseases like leukaemia could become easier and more effective, as it’s the hematons that become dysfunctional in sufferers.

At the moment, there are thousands of people on the bone marrow register, but someone must be a very close match to be able to donate, so the possibility of making artificial marrow that could match any blood type would really be a leap forward.

last updated: 22/06/06
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