A lot of the early applications of tissue engineering are focused on aiding research: the small amounts of tissue created are using for testing and investigation. That is a stepping stone for the various companies and labs involved, a way to generate revenue and interest while steadily improving their capabilities. It is worth keeping an eye on these efforts, because it is from here that later applications in clinical medicine will arise.
Currently, scientists grow neurons in petri dishes to study their behavior in a controllable environment. Yet neurons grown in two dimensions are unable to replicate the complex structural organization of brain tissue, which consists of segregated regions of grey and white matter. Recently, tissue engineers have attempted to grow neurons in 3D gel environments, where they can freely establish connections in all directions. Yet these gel-based tissue models don't live long and fail to yield robust, tissue-level function.
Now [a] group of bioengineers report that they have successfully created functional 3D brain-like tissue that exhibits grey-white matter compartmentalization and can survive in the lab for more than two months. As a first demonstration of its potential, researchers used the brain-like tissue to study chemical and electrical changes that occur immediately following traumatic brain injury and, in a separate experiment, changes that occur in response to a drug. The tissue could provide a superior model for studying normal brain function as well as injury and disease, and could assist in the development of new treatments for brain dysfunction.
The key to generating the brain-like tissue was the creation of a novel composite structure that consisted of two biomaterials with different physical properties: a spongy scaffold made out of silk protein and a softer, collagen-based gel. The scaffold served as a structure onto which neurons could anchor themselves, and the gel encouraged axons to grow through it. To achieve grey-white matter compartmentalization, the researchers cut the spongy scaffold into a donut shape and populated it with rat neurons. They then filled the middle of the donut with the collagen-based gel, which subsequently permeated the scaffold. In just a few days, the neurons formed functional networks around the pores of the scaffold, and sent longer axon projections through the center gel to connect with neurons on the opposite side of the donut. The result was a distinct white matter region (containing mostly cellular projections, the axons) formed in the center of the donut that was separate from the surrounding grey matter (where the cell bodies were concentrated).