Article from Huntington's The Herald-Dispatch Newspaper


Building cells in 3-D could hold secrets to medical advances (View the original article)

By JIM ROSS - The Herald-Dispatch

Tim Johnson/The Herald-Dispatch

Professor Jagan Valluri at Marshall University displays cells derived from plants called calli that are grown to produce medicinal compounds. In back is a prototype hydrodynamic focusing bioreactor from NASA that Valluri is using to simulate microgravity.

HUNTINGTON -- Jagan Valluri’s equipment is in the basement of the Science Building, but NASA pays him to simulate space in his experiments.

The question Valluri and researchers at five other universities, including Harvard and MIT, are being asked is this: Can the nearly weightless environment of space be duplicated on earth with a simple machine that would allow plant cells to clump together in three dimensions, instead of the two dimensions common in most laboratories.

The answer could some day hold the key to medical advances such as re-growing knee cartilage or growing cells that could be grafted into damaged heart muscles after a heart attack, he said.

From what Valluri has seen with his own eyes at Marshall, the answer is yes, they can.

"Plants are nature’s pharmacy, and they have untapped pharmaceuticals," said Valluri, a cell biologist at Marshall.

In the basement is a machine that tumbles small clumps of cells vertically. It looks like a dish set on its edge.

In another room in Valluri’s lab is something that looks like a refrigerator but isn’t. Inside are dishes growing cells from a sandalwood tree from India.

"We’re not interested in the whole plant. We’re interested in the cells. The cell has all the genetic machinery to produce the compound you desire," Valluri said.

The NASA machine, also known as a hydrodynamic focusing bioreactor, tumbles the cells and allows them to link together faster than if they were sitting in a dish or if they were in a traditional bioreactor, Valluri said.

"Cells like to be connected with each other," Valluri said. In a close, nutrient-filled environment such as the bioreactor they will try to form connections on their own, he said.

Cell clusters inside the bioreactor continually fall yet never hit bottom -- much like freely-falling spacecraft that orbit Earth. In Earth-labs, cells are most often grown in petri dishes, where they settle in a flat layer at the bottom. But in the bioreactor, floating cells can easily gather into 3-dimensional structures that resemble real tissues and organs in the human body, Valluri said.

A traditional reactor is more like a blender found on a kitchen countertop, and its blades can shear the cell cultures apart.

NASA plans to use the hydrodynamic bioreactor on a space shuttle mission in 2007, Valluri said.

"NASA has chosen 5 schools -- Marshall, John Hopkins, MIT, UC Berkeley and Baylor -- to characterize their newly developed space bioreactor. Marshall is only school to characterize plant cells that can potentially produce anti-cancer agents and other medically valuable compounds," Valluri said.

As Marshall’s biotechnology effort grows, Valluri wants to participate in experiments using the NASA bioreactor to discover the medicinal anti-cancer compounds that exist in plants that naturally grow in Appalachia. For example, he wants to partner with a medical school researcher to test the effect of compounds found in ginseng on high blood pressure.

That kind of experiment will be easier in a few years, when the medical school researchers are moved into two new buildings to be built across 3rd Avenue from the Science Building, Valluri said.

"That kind of synergy is going to take us to a different level," he said.

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