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TED2011

Nina Tandon: Caring for engineered tissue

March 2, 2011

Tissue engineer and TED Fellow Nina Tandon is growing artificial hearts and bones. To do that, she needs new ways of caring for artificially grown cells -- techniques she's developed by the simple but powerful method of copying their natural environments.

Nina Tandon - Tissue engineering researcher
Nina Tandon studies ways to use electrical signals to grow artificial tissues for transplants and other therapies. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Good morning everybody.
00:15
I work with really amazing,
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little, itty-bitty creatures called cells.
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And let me tell you what it's like
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to grow these cells in the lab.
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I work in a lab where we take cells out of their native environment.
00:27
We plate them into dishes
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that we sometimes call petri dishes.
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And we feed them -- sterilely of course --
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with what we call cell culture media -- which is like their food --
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and we grow them in incubators.
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Why do I do this?
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We observe the cells in a plate,
00:45
and they're just on the surface.
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But what we're really trying to do in my lab
00:49
is to engineer tissues out of them.
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What does that even mean?
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Well it means growing an actual heart,
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let's say,
00:59
or grow a piece of bone
01:01
that can be put into the body.
01:03
Not only that, but they can also be used for disease models.
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And for this purpose, traditional cell culture techniques
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just really aren't enough.
01:10
The cells are kind of homesick;
01:12
the dish doesn't feel like their home.
01:14
And so we need to do better at copying their natural environment
01:16
to get them to thrive.
01:18
We call this the biomimetic paradigm --
01:20
copying nature in the lab.
01:22
Let's take the example of the heart,
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the topic of a lot of my research.
01:27
What makes the heart unique?
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Well, the heart beats,
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rhythmically, tirelessly, faithfully.
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We copy this in the lab
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by outfitting cell culture systems with electrodes.
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These electrodes act like mini pacemakers
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to get the cells to contract in the lab.
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What else do we know about the heart?
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Well, heart cells are pretty greedy.
01:48
Nature feeds the heart cells in your body
01:50
with a very, very dense blood supply.
01:52
In the lab, we micro-pattern channels
01:54
in the biomaterials
01:56
on which we grow the cells,
01:58
and this allows us to flow the cell culture media, the cells' food,
02:00
through the scaffolds where we're growing the cells --
02:03
a lot like what you might expect
02:06
from a capillary bed in the heart.
02:08
So this brings me to lesson number one:
02:10
life can do a lot with very little.
02:13
Let's take the example of electrical stimulation.
02:16
Let's see how powerful just one of these essentials can be.
02:18
On the left, we see a tiny piece of beating heart tissue
02:22
that I engineered from rat cells in the lab.
02:25
It's about the size of a mini marshmallow.
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And after one week, it's beating.
02:29
You can see it in the upper left-hand corner.
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But don't worry if you can't see it so well.
02:33
It's amazing that these cells beat at all.
02:35
But what's really amazing
02:38
is that the cells, when we electrically stimulate them,
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like with a pacemaker,
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that they beat so much more.
02:44
But that brings me to lesson number two:
02:46
cells do all the work.
02:48
In a sense, tissue engineers have a bit of an identity crisis here,
02:50
because structural engineers
02:53
build bridges and big things,
02:55
computer engineers, computers,
02:58
but what we are doing
03:00
is actually building enabling technologies for the cells themselves.
03:02
What does this mean for us?
03:05
Let's do something really simple.
03:07
Let's remind ourselves
03:09
that cells are not an abstract concept.
03:11
Let's remember that our cells sustain our lives
03:14
in a very real way.
03:17
"We are what we eat," could easily be described
03:19
as, "We are what our cells eat."
03:22
And in the case of the flora in our gut,
03:24
these cells may not even be human.
03:26
But it's also worth noting
03:30
that cells also mediate our experience of life.
03:32
Behind every sound, sight, touch, taste and smell
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is a corresponding set of cells
03:38
that receive this information
03:40
and interpret it for us.
03:42
It begs the question:
03:44
shall we expand our sense of environmental stewardship
03:46
to include the ecosystem of our own bodies?
03:49
I invite you to talk about this with me further,
03:52
and in the meantime, I wish you luck.
03:54
May none of your non-cancer cells
03:57
become endangered species.
03:59
Thank you.
04:01
(Applause)
04:03

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Nina Tandon - Tissue engineering researcher
Nina Tandon studies ways to use electrical signals to grow artificial tissues for transplants and other therapies.

Why you should listen

Nina Tandon studies electrical signaling in the context of tissue engineering, with the goal of creating “spare parts” for human implantation and/or disease models. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Cooper Union, Nina worked on an electronic nose used to “smell” lung cancer as a Fulbright scholar in Rome. She studied electrical stimulation for cardiac tissue engineering at MIT and Columbia, and now continues her research on electrical stimulation for broader tissue-engineering applications. Tandon was a 2011 TED Fellow and a 2012 Senior Fellow. Nina was also honored as one of Foreign Policy's 2015 Global Thinkers

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