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September 30, 2005

Researchers Seek Answers to ‘Self-Assembly’

Nicole Hemsoth

A healing cut or a developing embryo are examples of what a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher calls a hallmark of living systems: “biological self-assembly.” A team of scientists, led by MU professor of biological physics Gabor Forgacs, have received nearly $5 million from the National Science Foundation to answer the fundamental biological question: What controls this self-assembly process?

The answer will help provide breakthroughs in regenerative medicine by means of a new process called organ printing, developed by Forgacs' team.

“We probably will never learn exactly how biological self-assembly works but we will not need too,” Forgacs said. “What we want to know is how to control self-assembly and be able to mimic what the biological system does. Once we understand the fundamental organizing principles that control this self- assembly and the cues that are necessary to provide to the system, we can use that knowledge in our organ printing technology.”

Organ printing will be one tool in this research, according to Forgacs. The team is developing a system that takes cells from a patient with a damaged organ, blood vessel or heart valve and uses those cells to “print” a replacement organ. Bio-printing could solve many transplantation problems; it would eliminate the need for people to be on long waiting lists for transplants and, since the cells used belong to the patient, there would be no worry of rejection or infection.

“Transplantation as we know it today is not the future; artificial substitutes are not the future; this is the future.” said Forgacs, referring to organ printing. “It is quick and relatively simple. A number of fundamental questions have to be answered first but these do not seem to be insurmountable.”

The research team, assembled by Forgacs, was one of nearly 100 competing for the NSF awards. The project — Understanding and Employing Tissue Self-Assembly — brings together seven investigators from biological physics, computational physics, molecular biology, developmental biology, organic chemistry and tissue engineering. As part of the grant, several museums have expressed interest in displaying organ printing: The New York Hall of Science, the Utah Science Center, the Saint Louis Science Center and the Kansas City Science Center.